August 2011 Notebook


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

All the News That's Fit to Print

Looking at the Wichita Eagle this morning I was struck by the sheer number of strangely disturbing headlines. It's like we've entered into some kind of Twilight Zone. Some examples:

  • Unsuitable for business: Developer pledges to fix all of downtown building's problems: lead front-page story on 19-floor building at 125 N. Market which city government had already contributed $1 million to a developer; pictures show cracked cement above parking area; story mentions orange water, non-functioning bathrooms and air conditioning, orange water.
  • Judge: State must restore federal funds to clinics: while Republicans elsewhere are passing laws to stop paying Planned Parenthood for routine health care services, Gov. Brownback just stopped the checks; the courts have ordered Kansas to pay up, but Brownback still hasn't paid; I'm looking forward to contempt of court charges, with Brownback going to jail as a martyr for his cause.
  • Police to fight sex trafficking from St. Louis to western Kan.: you probably figured they were already doing this, but prosecutor Cynthia Cordes figured it was worth a press release anyway; her big idea is to entrap Johns thereby crimping the market's demand side.
  • Pilots' addiction to automation a danger: "Some 51 'loss of control' accidents occurred in which planes stalled in flight or got into positions from which pilots were unable to recover."
  • End of COBRA subsidy hits the jobless: the subsidy was part of the now-defunct stimulus package; without it the unemployed will join the uninsured, in many cases spiraling into bankruptcy, unless they're saved by Medicaid, another form of subsidy with problems of its own.
  • Hate government? Try 'federal family': huh? evidently the phrase has been used by FEMA going back to the 1990s to describe a cooperative relationship between multiple federal agencies, but the author here (Kathleen Hennessey) thinks it's part of a Madison Avenue rebranding effort, like "the death tax"; for more on this, see Steve Benen.
  • $60 billion lost to war zone waste, panel says: AP article by Richard Lardner, on a new report; they're still about a trillion dollars short.
  • Wildfires ravage homes in OKC and North Texas: presumably a new article, although this has been happening all year: "In Oklahoma City, bursts of flame rose amid thick black smoke as oil-packed cedar trees ignited, giving gawkers a stunning view even from blocks away. Utility poles lit up like matchsticks, and power was out to more than 7,000 homes and businesses."
  • Feds back off street sign mandate: would have required "larger lettering and high-quality nighttime reflection on all street signs by 2018"; wonder if it would have required Boston to actually put up street signs?
  • Poll finds Muslims have mixed views on status in U.S.: well, at least it's mixed: "43 percent -- reported they had personally experienced harassment in the past year."
  • Obama, GOP set to fight over rules: i.e., regulations that the GOP claims are killing jobs, like, I suppose, the street sign thing Obama has already surrendered on, although it isn't obvious to me how many jobs would really be lost by requiring new signs to be manufactured and installed.
  • Irene inflicted its worst damage on rural areas: the non-story is that New York City turned out to be pretty robust, but then you don't find the city's power being delivered on rickety poles surrounded by trees; I don't think there's a good answer here, but there are plenty of bad ones, like blaming people for living in unsafe, uneconomical rural areas (extra demerits for using the term "moral hazard").
  • Rebels set deadline for city to surrender: In Libya, where Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte remains his last redoubt (not that there is any evidence that Gaddafi is there); if Libya's "rebels" are indeed committed to democracy, why is there any urgency in shelling Sirte to force it to join; sooner or later the city will want to join the rest of Libya, and until then killing people just makes the rebels look bad (or more precisely, makes them look like Gaddafi).
  • Fake Green Beret sentenced for fraud: "For years William Hillar's tales about his exploits as an Army Green Beret and a puffed up resume helped him land jobs teaching counterterrorism and drug and human trafficking interdiction, but the scheme has now earned him 21 months in federal prison" -- kind of like Bernie Kerik but on a much smaller scale.
  • 66 U.S. losses in August most yet in Afghanistan: tops 65 in July 2010, but nearly half (30) were part of the big helicopter being shot down; "Violence is being reported across Afghanistan despite the U.S.-led coalition's drive to rout insurgents from their strongholds in the south."
  • Feds in Texas to save endangered species: Another reason for Texas to secede, although I guess those plans are on hold pending Rich Perry's attempt to take over the Union.
  • Dead men don't vote: lead editorial, but reflects a big news story from earlier in the week, when a study revealed that there were indeed dead people on voter registration rolls but none of them had actually voted; KS Secretary of State Kris Kobach has been relentless in his efforts to make sure the wrong people don't vote in Kansas, so despite any evidence to the contrary, he still insists, "Every deceased voter that remains on Kansas' voter rolls creates the risk of a fraudulent vote being cast."

There's also a Cal Thomas column on Libya but I can't begin to make sense of it. But toward the end he wants to send the NTC a bill for "the help we've given it, directly and through NATO"; then adding, "This is a practice we also should apply to other countries seeking our assistance." Best idea he's had in a long time, but maybe we should do a credit check first. The GDP of Afghanistan is less than $30 billion, and we've blown through 15 times that much helping them ($450 billion), adding $120 billion (4 times their GDP) per year now. It's rather hard to see how they can afford us, but then it's also hard to see how what the US is doing constitutes help.

By the way, hit 100F yesterday. Forecast is for 104F today, 105F tomorrow, so that 1936 record will soon be history. Last time Kansas had a summer this hot we voted overwhelmingly for FDR. We've lost our minds this year too, but I've yet to see anything good coming out of it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

More Than Just Pond Scum

One of the headlines on the front page of the Wichita Eagle today: Milford Lake closes as toxic algae thrive. Even more pointed is the smaller print tagline above the headline: "3 DOGS KILLED DRINKING WATER." They're measuring as much as 5 million blue-green algae cells per milliliter. Advisories against drinking or "having full contact with lake water" are supposed to go out once the cell counts top 20,000. No people have died yet, but "several" have become ill.

The record hot weather this summer has caused algae blooms in most of the state's reservoirs. As best I recall, Kansas only has one natural lake -- somewhere near Kansas City -- but nearly every farmer in the state dammed up a little pond, and the big-time dambuilders went crazy from the 1930s on, so there are several dozen good-sized reservoirs, of which Milford is the largest. (Wikipedia lists 27, plus it lists Cheyenne Bottoms as a natural lake -- I've always thought of it as a patch of swamp.) Presumably we're only now hearing about Milford because it's in the northeast part of the state where it's missed most of the drought and some of the heat that hit us harder to the south and west.

Some people are quick to point to outbreaks of storms as proof of global warming, but it's hard to establish those corelations. On the anniversary of Katrina, we've only had one hurricane thus far this season. (I would guess that the temperature, hence the potential energy, in the Gulf of Mexico has marginally increased over the past few decades, but the factors that turn that energy into hurricanes seem to be much more haphazard.) However, the algae blooms that have plagued Kansas lakes this year are about as tightly corelated to temperature as can be, so they give us a vivid indicator of what global warming looks like and how it affects our lives: dead fish, dead dogs, and certainly no water skiing, which in my youth was a favored pastime for cooling off in what even then were pretty hot summers. (We spent a lot of time at Kanapolis, near where my grandparents lived; an uncle worked as a park ranger there for a while. My brother's inlaws went to Fall River practically every week. I have a good friend who has a cabin on Lake ElDorado -- a lake that's been shut down for over a month now.)

One thing that strikes me about disasters is how great the disconnect is between people who experience them directly and others who only experience them vicariously through the news. Take Hurricane Irene, for example. Steve Benen has a piece on Michelle Bachman's reaction (which she later termed an "attempt at humor"):

The full quote, which MSNBC only showed part of, is as follows: "I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?' Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending."

Also note, Bachmann didn't just say this once. At a separate campaign event in Florida on the same day, she made the same point, using slightly different phrasing.

"Washington, D.C., you'd think by now they'd get the message. An earthquake, a hurricane. Are you listening? The American people have done everything they possibly can, and now it's time for an act of God and we're getting it."

In both instances, the videos show Bachmann's supporters chuckling.

Benen adds:

I'll gladly concede that the right-wing Republican delivered the comments in a seemingly lighthearted way, but it's also worth noting that presidential candidates don't generally joke about deadly natural disasters while the disaster is unfolding. Bachmann clearly liked the line well enough to repeat it more than once, but while she was drawing laughs, people were literally dying.

On the other hand, see Benen's Assessing Irene's impact, which includes a couple of quotes from political figures who actually have work to do in the wake of the storm:

Preliminary estimates also point to about $7 billion in U.S. property damage, though that figure is likely to be revised more than once.

As for the governmental response, it's a long-term process but the early reports are encouraging. Amanda Terkel noted yesterday, "Governors of both parties are praising the federal response to Hurricane Irene, giving a much-needed vote of confidence to the Federal Emergency Management Agency."

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), for example, said FEMA has been "very responsive" and "the cooperation between New Jersey and FEMA has been great." Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said the leading federal officials "have been excellent," adding, "This is a much better FEMA than the olden days."

Now, on any given day, Christie is likely to be as full of shit as Bachmann, but today, at least, he has something more useful to do than bloviate about how government's the problem or pontificate on why God's punishing us.

I recall the same dynamic on 9/11, but in that case I was in New York, smelling the burning stench, commiserating with my family over the murder of a niece who worked in the WTC, joining peace vigils, and totally isolated from the insanity that swept the rest of the otherwise unaffected country. For a few brief days there I saw Rudy Giulliani so touched and disturbed by the events that he temporarily turned into a Mensch -- an effect that vanished as soon as he found out what his performance had done to his polls -- while at the same time in Washington on the Capitol steps Hillary Clinton turned into a bloodthirsty monster.

One recognition from all this is that we really don't have much capacity for empathy with others -- something which immediate access through the media seems to be making worse rather than better. We see something happening, something we can't really imagine, and all we do with that information is use it to reinforce preconceptions that have no relevance, and may even be contradicted by events.

Expert Comments

An old familiar album:

Tarkus? Let's see . . . according to my trusty database, a D+, which means definitely not the worst record ever, but very likely the worst ELP ever did. I did a serious study of ELP back in 1977 when I reviewed Works for the Voice -- although I must admit I haven't played any of them since, and they were probably in the sell off pile when I left NJ (if they lasted that long). That piece was the beginning of the end of my first stretch writing for Christgau: I was pretty upset when they changed my title ("ELP: Up From Fascism") to "ELP Moves On Up." The piece is on my website somewhere. (The only other title I ever cared that much about was "Let's String Up the Outlaws," which the Voice had no problem with -- in fact, ran it as the lead on the back cover.)

By the way, shortly after my piece ran Dave Marsh wrote a review where he argued that the real fascist band was Queen -- this would have been about the time of News of the World (it would be even funnier if it was as late as Jazz). I always figured it for an answer review, but more importantly that was when I realize that Marsh had no sense of irony whatsoever.

The picks today were Terakaft: Aratan N Azawad and Tinariwen: Tassili, two Saharan groups that have been on Tatum's radar for a month now.

Update: Milo Miles says Marsh's Queen review was of Jazz: link:

Whatever its claims, Queen isn't here just to entertain. This group has come to make it clear exactly who is superior and who is inferior. Its anthem, "We Will Rock You," is a marching order: you will not rock us, we will rock you. Indeed, Queen may be the first truly fascist rock band. The whole thing makes me wonder why anyone would indulge these creeps and their polluting ideas.

Someone else questioned my assertion that Tarkus was ELP's worst, pointing out Love Beach -- a 1978 album sloughed off to weasel out of their contract. AMG gave it 1.5 stars and a short but grim review. It does indeed look to be atrocious in almost every conceivable way.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Music Week

Music: Current count 18642 [18609] rated (+33), 856 [846] unrated (+10).

Changed previous grades:

  • Poly Styrene: Translucence (1980, United Artists): Dead after a two-album career, 31 years separating them. Haven't replayed this, and may no longer have it, but seems fitting to bump this up. [was: B+] A-

Jazz Prospecting (JCG #28, Part 4)

Not a peep back from the Village Voice. Maybe I'm done there? Maybe they're done? Will carry on until I know something, but the prospecting rate of the last two weeks slowed down this week: 15 below, overall rated count was a productive but relatively normal 33. The difference mostly goes into Recycled Goods and Rhapsody Streamnotes, both due to drop sometime in the next week, both (especially the former) looking pretty anemic going into the week.

Roger Davidson Quintet: Brazilian Love Song (2009 [2010], Soundbrush): Pianist, b. 1952 in France but grew up in New York; has 11 albums since 2000's Mango Tango, all keyed to Latin rhythms, the majority Brazilian. Silly of me to have ignored this for a year now -- the title on the spine, the cartoonish cover in the Brazilian national colors, the "30 years of Brazilian music" blurb seemed unappealing, but the fine print suggests otherwise: Davidson (whose name isn't visible on the spine) himself has been more and more impressive each time out, well on his way to becoming a Latin pianist-of-all-trades like Dick Hyman. Also turns out that instead of recycling moldy bossa novas, he composed all the music -- dating some pieces as far back as 1978, so he's recycling his files. Also Pablo Aslan produced -- the Argentine bassist, I've never seen him associated with a dud project yet. The Quintet is Brazilian where it counts -- Paulo Braga on drums and Marivaldo Dos Santos on percussion -- and Aaron Heick's sax doesn't let anyone get too laid back. A-

Harris Eisenstadt: September Trio (2010 [2011], Clean Feed): Drummer, has tended lately to rig his records to emphasize his compositions rather than his position. Trio includes Ellery Eskelin (tenor sax) and Angelica Sanchez (piano), so this lacks the drive and connectivity that a bassist should add: it runs a bit slow, muted, but spacious. Been hearing a lot from Eskelin lately, and I'm afraid that I've fallen uncritically in love with all of it. The pianist holds up her end too. B+(***)

Satoko Fujii Min-Yoh Ensemble: Watershed (2009 [2011], Libra): Min-Yoh means folk music in Japanese, and three (of eight) songs here are identified as "Japanese traditional folk" -- the others are Fujii originals. Not knowing anything about Japanese folk music that can't be reduced to traditional instruments (none such here, but there are some vocals), I'm at a loss. Fujii plays piano, along with Andrea Parkins (accordion), Curtis Hasselbring (trombone), and Natsuki Tamura (trumpet). Accordion mostly adds density, and trombone darker tones. B+(**)

Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York: Eto (2010 [2011], Libra): Prolific Japanese pianist -- a quick count shows 17 Jazz CG records for her and/or her husband-trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. Among many other groups, she runs four big bands, three based in Japan plus this all-star outfit in New York, on their 8th album together here. The big thing here is the 14-part "Eto Suite," plus three shorter pieces. Strong solos but less hectic than previous albums, with some nicely arranged stretches. B+(**)

Thomas Heberer's Clarino: Klippe (2010 [2011], Clean Feed): Trumpet player, b. 1965 in Germany, based in New York since 2008. Probably has ten or so records more/less under his own name since 1988 -- I can't find a definitive list, as well as side credits with Alexander von Schlippenbach (including Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra) and Misha Mengelberg (including ICP Orchestra). Trio with Joachim Badenhorst (clarinet, bass clarinet) and Pascal Niggenkemper (bass). Slow and moody, a tone painting that never quite resolves. B

Gerry Hemingway Quintet: Riptide (2009 [2011], Clean Feed): Drummer-led quintet, with Oscar Noriega (alto sax, clarinet, bass clarinet), Ellery Eskelin (tenor sax), Terrence McManus (guitar), Kermit Driscoll (acoustic bass, electric bass guitar). I assumed this would flesh out Hemingway's superb duos with Eskelin and McManus so I latched onto their flights, but if anything this is more tightly bound to the beat -- deliriously so in the reggae-inspired "Backabacka" but also in the slower, more muted pieces that preceded it, seeming to draw the record down when really they were setting it up. A-

Kaze: Rafale (2010 [2011], Libra): New Satoko Fujii-Natsuki Tamura group, a quartet with Christian Pruvost adding a second trumpet and Peter Orins on drums. The latter two are from France. Pruvost has one album; Orins, as far as I can tell, none under his own name, but he wrote 3 of 6 pieces (Fujii 2, Tamura 1). No dueling among the trumpets. In most cases one takes a high road while the other goes low, with much of the album winding up in the dirt. The exception is the final cut called "Blast" where everyone is cranking. B+(**)

Vincent Lyn: Heaven Bound (2011, Budo): Pianist, first album, describes it as "cool jazz with a mix of classical and bossa nova." Has a longer career as an actor and stunt man, especially in Hong Kong martial arts films -- website has a lot of pics of him handling swords. Group includes guitar, sax/flute, bass, drums, percussion, and Fernanda Capela singing the bossa nova-oriented pieces, while the classical bits (Rachmaninoff, Satie, Piero Domenico Paradisi) center on the piano. It's all rather genteel, not especially interesting as jazz but pleasant in a nicely rounded way. B+(*)

Nilson Matta & Roni Ben-Hur: Mojave (2011, Motéma): Brazilian bassist and Israeli guitarist, both New York based, both with such substantial discographies I won't bother looking them up. In smaller front cover print: Victor Lewis (drums) and Café (percussion) -- don't know the latter but he's invaluable here. Mostly a Brazilian program (Jobim, Pixinginha, Baden Powell) with two pieces by Ben-Hur, two by Matta, one by Lewis, one by Burt Bacharach. Nice to focus on Matta's bass for once, the guitar adding tasteful highlights and a little icing. B+(***)

Mike Prigodich: A Stitch in Time (2011, Mexican Mocha Music): Pianist, electric keybs as well as acoustic; studied at Wheaton, worked in Chicago, moved to Portland in 1998. Credits "becoming a cancer patient in 2008" as a wake-up call, pushing him to compose more, leading to this first album. Calls his core group MPEG (Melz/Prigodich/Erskine Group), with Reinhardt Melz on drums, Damian Erskine on bass. Saxophonist John Nastos, guitarist Brandon Woody, and percussionist Rafael Trujillo also get credits on the front cover, and a couple others on one or two -- Tim Jensen gets a flute feature. Seems like this gets tripped up in a couple of spots, rare breaks in the upbeat funk attack. I've always been a sax fan, and Nastos is consistently tasty here, but the strongest bit is a guitar solo from the otherwise underutilized Woody. B+(*)

Mark Segger Sextet: The Beginning (2010 [2011], 18th Note): Drummer, from Edmonton, now based in Toronto, first album; composes all eight pieces here, for a sextet including trumpet (Jim Lewis), tenor sax/clarinet (Chris Willes), trombone (Heather Segger), piano/melodica (Tania Gill), and bass (Andrew Downing). He calls the pieces "idiosyncratic" with such sources as "soca rhythms, chamber music, and the abstract pointillism of contemporary free improvisation." No doubt about idiosyncratic: slippery postbop, disjointed and improbably reconnected. B+(**)

Rick Stone Trio: Fractals (2011, Jazzand): Guitarist, from Cleveland, studied at Berklee, wound up in New York. Fourth album since 1990, widely spaced (1994, 2004, 2011). Four covers -- three standards and a Billy Strayhorn piece you don't run into often ("Ballad for Very Sad and Very Tired Lotus Eaters") -- seven originals. Trio with Marco Panascia on bass and Tom Pollard on drums. Has a thin metallic sound, focused on long likes like Wes Montgomery but doesn't pick up the pace. B+(*)

Kevin Tkacz Trio: It's Not What You Think (2007 [2008], Piece of Work of Art): Bassist, based in Brooklyn. First (and evidently only) record, a piano trio with Bill Carrothers and Michael Sarin. Two songs credited to Tkacz, one to Rogers and Hart, the rest group improvs. Best thing I've heard by Carrothers in several years, probably because he gets a little dirty, as does the bass. B+(***)

Denny Zeitlin: Labyrinth: Live Solo Piano (2008 [2011], Sunnyside): Pianist, b. 1938, has a couple dozen records since 1964. Three of last four have been solo, which strikes me as too many but he's deep within his own distinctive style. 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.

Andreas Schmidt/Samuel Rohrer/Thomas Heberer: Pieces for a Husky Puzzle (2009, Jazzwerkstatt): Piano, drums, trumpet respectively. Schmidt was b. 1967, more than a dozen credits start around 1990, hard to tell how many; AMG lists Andreas Schmidt as a classical music vocalist, but that is someone else (b. 1960). Seven cuts, each called "Puzzle Piece" followed by a number. Slow and abstract improvs, thoughtful and brooding (or maybe just droning); doesn't leave the drummer much to do. B+(*) [Rhapsody]

No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.

Unpacking: Found in the mail over the last week:

  • Albert Ayler: Love Cry/The Last Album (1967-69, Impulse)
  • Mike Baggetta Quartet: Source Material (Fresh Sound New Talent)
  • Art Blakey: Jazz Messengers!!!!!/A Jazz Message (1961-64, Impulse)
  • Kenny Burrell: Tenderly: Solo Guitar Concert (High Note)
  • Ernesto Cervini Quartet: There (Anzic): Sept. 27
  • Maureen Choi: Quartet (self-released)
  • Alice Coltrane: Universal Consciousness/Lord of Lords (1971-72, Impulse)
  • Joey DeFrancesco (High Note)
  • Mike DiRubbo & Larry Willis: Four Hands, One Heart (Ksanti)
  • Echoes of Swing: Message From Mars (Echoes of Swing)
  • Duke Ellington: Meets Coleman Hawkins/And John Coltrane (1962, Impulse)
  • Curtis Fuller: Soul Trombone/Cabin in the Sky (1961-62, Impulse)
  • The Galactic Cowboy Orchestra: All Out of Peaches (New Folk)
  • Tim Hagans: The Moon Is Waiting (Palmetto): Oct. 11
  • Coleman Hawkins: Today and Now/Desafinado (1962, Impulse)
  • Milt Jackson: Statements/Jazz 'n' Samba (1962-64, Impulse)
  • Ahmad Jamal: Poinciana Revisited/Freeflight (1969-71, Impulse)
  • Elvin Jones: Illumination/Dear John C. (1962-65, Impulse)
  • Travis Laplante: Heart Protector (Skirl): Oct. 18
  • Allen Lowe: Blues and the Empirical Truth (Music & Arts, 3CD)
  • Sonny Rollins: On Impulse!/There Will Never Be Another You (1965, Impulse)
  • Pharoah Sanders: Village of the Pharoahs/Wisdom Through Magic (1973, Impulse)
  • Shirley Scott: For Members Only/Great Scott!! (1963-64, Impulse)
  • Archie Shepp: For Losers/Kwanza (1970-74, Impulse)
  • Gabor Szabo: The Sorcerer/More Scorcery (1967, Impulse)
  • McCoy Tyner: Inception/Reaching Fourth (1962-63, Impulse)
  • Greg Ward: Greg Ward's Phonic Juggernaut (Thirsty Ear): advance, Oct. 25


  • Drive-By Truckers: Go-Go Boots (ATO/Red)
  • LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver (DFA/Capitol)
  • Lupe Fiasco: Lasers (Atlantic)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Weekend Roundup

Some scattered links I squirreled away during the previous week:

  • David Bromwich: Symptoms of the Bush-Obama Presidency: I never had a lot of especially kind things to say about Bill Clinton's presidency. Clinton's overarching goal was to balance the budget in the vain hope that doing so might make the bond market happy, and over eight years he sacrificed every imaginable principle of the Democratic Party to succeed -- a legacy that was ripped to shreds by his successor, G.W. Bush, is less than a year. But the transition from Clinton to Bush was little short of shocking. Clinton engaged in more skirmishes than we'd like to remember; he scarcely cut defense spending even though most of it was geared to the long-gone Cold War era, and he sucked up to the military brass more than was seemly, but his eight years were among the more peaceful ones in post-WWII history. And, at least toward the end of his run, his economy was not just relatively prosperous but more equitably distributed than had been the case since the 1970s. When Bush replaced Clinton, The Onion published a piece of prophetic satire: Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity Is Finally Over'. Indeed, it was, and eight years of national self-destruction followed, good years only for the superrich predator class and a few people who get off on blowing shit up. When when Barack Hussein Obama was elected to replace Bush, along with an overwhelming Democratic Congress, most of us expected another major change was in the works. But two-and-a-half years later, it feels like very little has changed. The war in Iraq is a little quieter but still going on; the war in Afghanistan is even noisier and ever more pointless. The conflict in Israel/Palestine couldn't be in worse shape if Dennis Ross was running the US effort. The banks have been bailed out: no one has been sent to jail, even though the top dozen or so managed to steal or destroy more wealth than the million-plus poor people who are actually in jail in the world's most thickly populated penitentiary system. The stimulus program that was supposed to compensate for the economic destruction has been met with so many government cutbacks at all levels that the net stimulus to the economy has been negative -- part of the reason why unemployment has kept climbing, with much of the total so long term that it's effectively beyond the bounds of the labor statistics.

    Meanwhile, the rich continue to pay Bush-level taxes, accumulating hoards of cash that they don't dare invest because they realize that working (and not-so-working) people don't have the resources (much less credit) to buy more products. And these are only some of the big ticket items: civil liberties issues are the same as Bush left them; the Global War on Terror winds on to Yemen and Somalia and ever deeper into an increasingly unstable Pakistan; immigration policy has become even more hysterically nativist; anti-Islamic racism has become even more virulent. And the political dialogue, which a smart, sensible guy like Obama should have elevated, has gone off the rails, with the media dominated by Tea Party crackpots -- in the 1850s the media was astute enough to dub the same types the Know Nothing Party, a label that stuck because it was self-evident -- and a bizarre assortment of crooks, shysters, and scam artists.

    Trying to follow politics these days is even more brutal and it was under Bush, where the chain of command was shorter -- the GOP masses are nothing if not loyal to their leader -- and Bush himself (or was it Rove?) was never one to put ideology over the interests of his sponsors. Nowadays, ideology has broken free and is running roughshod over the entire GOP, leading the House Republicans -- who having been vetted by the lobbyists donating to their campaigns ought to be a good deal saner than, say, Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter -- to pass measures to destroy Medicare and to undermine the nation's credit status. And they are relatively sane, at least compared to the ones who want to put us back on the gold standard, to outlawing all unions, to making looking foreign grounds for arrest.

    Bromwich tries to map out the continuities between the Bush and Obama administrations, first by sorting out two lists of people: one that the administration has stood by ("The Saved": Lawrence Summers, Robert Gates, Rahm Emanuel, Cass Sunstein, Eric Holder, Dennis Ross, Peter Orszag, Thomas Donilon), at least until some of them cashed in their chips (most notoriously Orszag; shouldn't Leon Panetta be here too?); the other advisers and nominees that Obama cut loose ("The Sacked": Gen. James Jones, Karl Eikenberry, Paul Volcker, Dennis Blair, James Cartwright, Dawn Johnsen, Greg Craig, Carol Browner). Both lists could be stretched out further; indeed, this looks like a precis for a book:

    This has become the ethic of the Bush-Obama administration in a new phase. It explains, as nothing else does, Obama's enormous appetite for compromise, the growing conventionality of his choices of policy and person, and the legitimacy he has conferred on many radical innovations of the early Bush years by assenting to their logic and often widening their scope. They are, after all, the world as it is.

    Obama's pragmatism comes down to a series of maxims that can be relied on to ratify the existing order -- any order, however recent its advent and however repulsive its effects. You must stay in power in order to go on "seeking." Therefore, in "the world as it is," you must requite evil with lesser evil. You do so to prevent your replacement by fanatics: people, for example, like those who invented the means you began by deploring but ended up adopting. Their difference from you is that they lack the vision of the seeker. Finally, in the world as it is, to retain your hold on power you must keep in place the sort of people who are normally found in places of power.

  • Juan Cole: Top Ten Myths About the Libya War: Cole, like Paul Woodward, has supported the NATO intervention in what started as Libya's "Arab Spring" revolt, so he's taken a fair amount of flak from the antiwar left who are the main targets of his "myths" enumeration. There are good reasons to have opposed this thing: one, especially if you are American or European, is that regardless of the particulars of this operation you should realize that your countries have no right to go around bombing other countries, and that keeping a military to do so is bad both for your internal politics and for the world. On the other hand, Cole will help you avoid arguments that get kicked out almost reflexively -- that Gaddafi isn't such a bad guy, that this is all about oil, etc.

    Nonetheless, I think Cole missed his best argument. What made Libya unique wasn't that the government killed demonstrators -- that happened at first in Tunisia and Egypt, and is still happening in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. It's that the Libyan military split into two pieces, with some factions supporting the demonstrators, some Gaddafi, and that division was what militarized the conflict. (In Tunisia and Egypt the military eventually sided with the demonstrators; in Bahrain and Syria, not.) It was only after the conflict became militarized that outside powers considered tilting a balance that initially strongly favored Gaddafi to one where the tables were turned.

    One can argue that NATO prolonged the war, at least relative to the presumably quick victory Gaddafi would have had if his army had been able to march uncontested into Benghazi, but that would hardly have been the end of conflict with its cycle of demonstrations and murderous repression, refugees, and all that. At least with Gaddafi removed, it becomes possible to establish a democracy in Libya where political differences need not resort to violence -- and in the long run, that seems much the better deal. Of course, at this point nothing's set in stone. But however critical NATO was in overpowering Gaddafi, the US and European powers have remarkably little claim to Libyan ground, even as so-called peacekeepers. I can't imagine anyone building new bases like Camp Bondwell. So even if the instinct to intervene is rooted in imperialism, the result isn't.

    Colin Hallinan: The Myth of Libyan Liberation claims to refute Cole, but aside from generalities about US and NATO interests -- how malevolent they so often are -- he doesn't score many points. It's possible that Gaddafi would have killed fewer people once he put down the revolt than Cole imagines, but it's hard to make such a case, especially given that he had already crossed the line and ordered his troops (and mercenaries) to shoot up crowds and bombard cities. Hallinan is on firmer ground on the oil point, but could make his case more clearly. The US has little need for Libyan oil -- sure, off the market it drives prices up, but when has that ever informed US foreign policy? -- so would be happy enough to slap sanctions on Libya and starve them indefinitely (as was the case for most of the thirty years Gaddafi was in power). On the other hand, Europe does need and desire Libyan oil, so the prospect of getting blackballed behind US sanctions may have been a factor in Europe (especially France and Italy) pushing the NATO role. I'm not sure how much weight to put there, but this clearly was a war that Sarkozy wanted much more than Obama did. (The UK, of course, loves everyone's wars, so you hardly need to look for reasons with them. Lenin thought imperialism was the "last stage of capitalism" but didn't didn't think far enough ahead to realize that the last stage of imperialism is Alzheimer's.)

  • Peter Daou: How the Democratic Establishment Shunned the Left, Spawned the Tea Party and Move America Right: Diagrams, models, background quotes for a model on the differences between left and right media -- basically the latter is all connected to work in concert, whereas the former is disconnected, mostly because the Democratic Party political establishment would rather schmooze with their big donors than listen to their voters.

    At the root of the problem is this: the GOP benefits from a superior communications mechanism with which to shape and reshape conventional wisdom. Faced with a public that holds opposing views, politicians can either change their positions to match the public's views or change the public's views to match their positions -- Republicans almost always choose the latter, bolstered by a highly sophisticated framing and messaging infrastructure crafted and funded over decades.

    Climate change gaining traction? No problem, put oil money to use, fund bogus studies, cram misinformation down Americans' throats using talk radio, Fox, etc., employ the Overton Window to move the dialogue to the radical right, undercut science, attack academics, question reality, and eventually move the needle in their direction. It's an unseemly process, but it works. Suddenly, magically, global warming is a hoax. People without the slightest scientific grounding make dogmatic pronouncements about it, disdainfully dismissing a mortal threat to their own children and grandchildren.

    On the other side you have the Democratic establishment, political leaders, pollsters and strategists who, by and large, are poll addicts, chronically incapable of taking principled stands, obsessed with appealing to independent voters, hostile to progressive advocates, often just as captive to moneyed interests as their Republican counterparts. Mind-bogglingly, it was the White House and Democratic leadership that worked with BP to 'disappear' the Gulf spill, for fear it would harm them in the 2010 midterms. Craven doesn't begin to describe it.

    The fact that America is a low-information nation only makes the right's task of creating conventional wisdom easier. There's so much hype about the Tea Party that it's easy to forget who they are: Foxified and Limbaughed citizens whose legitimate anxiety has been manipulated by a billionaire-funded misinformation machine: [ . . . ]

    My fundamental disagreement with Drum is where to place the blame. From my perspective, it falls squarely with the Democratic establishment, not the broad liberal community.

    Here's why. Imagine a scenario where Democrats, instead of marginalizing the netroots, treated them with the same awe and respect the Tea Party engenders on the GOP side. Imagine an Obama presidency where the health care debate started with a fierce fight for single-payer; where Gitmo had been closed; where gay rights were unequivocally supported; where Bush and Cheney were investigated for sanctioning torture; where climate change was a top priority; where Bush's civil liberties violations were prosecuted rather than reinforced; where the Bush tax cuts expired; where the stimulus was much bigger; where programs for the poor, for research, jobs, infrastructure, science, education, were enhanced at the expense of war and profits for the wealthy; where the Republican assault on women's rights was met with furious resistance. I could go on and on.

    In short, imagine an America where the Democratic establishment loudly proclaimed that they were unshakable champions of core progressive values and that they would work hand in hand with their base to convince America that their ideas were superior to the right's.

    Of course, that's a fantasy. The unwillingness of Democratic leaders and strategists to do anything remotely close to that has virtually guaranteed that the triangle isn't formed on the left. Obama's supporters are fond of pointing to the GOP House and complaining that his hands are tied because of the 2010 midterms. But it's precisely the Democratic establishment's decrepitude that enabled the rise of the Tea Party and the 2010 defeat.

  • Alex Pareene: Hurricane Forecasting One of the Many Things GOP Doesn't Want to Spend Money On:

    Hurricane Irene is going to hit the United States' east coast this weekend, as you have likely heard. It looks to be a pretty nasty storm, capable of causing billions of dollars of damage. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been carefully tracking Irene, forecasting its path up the coast and its intensity. Of course, America's Republican-demanded White House-encouraged austerity budget includes cuts to the NOAA. Cuts that will delay -- by years -- the construction and launch of an extreme weather forecasting satellite. So let's hope there aren't any serious hurricanes in 2016, I guess? [ . . . ]

    This is an old story: Before or after a natural disaster, you can usually find a Republican who wanted to cut funding for departments and organizations that predicted and protected people from said disaster.

    Remember when Louisiana governor and poor public speaker mocked the concept of funding for "volcano monitoring" and then a volcano promptly erupted in Alaska? And remember how after Eric Cantor pushed for across-the-board budget cuts for the United States Geological Survey, his district was hit with an earthquake? And remember how the House Republican budget cut funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and then there was an earthquake and tsunami in Japan?

    Yes, well, as Matt Yglesias points out, when you want to cut funding for everything the government does, sometimes there will be major news events that involve something the government should be doing something about, and people will say, hey, shouldn't the government be doing something about this?

    Cutting money for disaster preparedness programs is a really good method of eventually wasting much more money, in the future, than you saved in the present, but that's sort of been the entire Republican spending philosophy for years now, actually.

    Needless to say, Ron Paul not only wants to abolish FEMA, he wants to bring back the good old days before we could even forecast major storms, saying: "We should be like 1900; we should be like 1940, 1950, 1960, [ . . . ] I Live on the Gulf Coast; we deal with hurricanes all the time. Galveston is in my district." Oh yeah, Galveston in 1900 rings a bell, doesn't it? That was the year a hurricane hit Galveston and killed between 8,000 and 12,000 people and left 30,000 homeless, with the second highest (adjusting for inflation) property damage toll in US history. More people were killed by that storm in Galveston than have died in hurricanes ever since -- 111 years during which storm forecasting and disaster preparedness have improved mostly due to government funding (at least when Bush wasn't president). Oh, again before Paul's time, but number four on that list was a 1915 hurricane that also hit Galveston. (Admittedly, anyone who depends on Texas textbooks for history is bound to be pretty ignorant, but Paul is old enough he must have known people who lived through those storms. I remember my father talking about Galveston, and he wasn't born until 1922, and in Kansas. Cam Patterson tells me that he lived in Galveston 1996-2000 and could still see evidence of the storm -- at least once he read Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History.)

    Paul doesn't support FEMA because of "moral hazard." The fact that people will receive help should a natural disaster strike encourages people to live where natural disaster happen. (Like "North America.") Paul is mostly talking about the National Flood Insurance Program, which definitely has glaring flaws as public policy, but abolishing the federal agency in charge of responding to natural disasters instead of fixing the problems with one program that agency oversees seems like overkill.

    It's very old news that Ron Paul thinks we should abolish FEMA, it's just rare that you hear anyone say we should go back to the good old days of disaster response and management. "We should be like 1900" is a very illuminating statement.

    Back in those days, after hurricanes would strike, communities would remain devastated, with thousands of people homeless and hungry, for weeks. And eventually they would beg the Federal War Department for help. (But they all enjoyed their liberty, as they waited in filth and disease for help from Uncle Sam.)

    Steve Benen: Ron Paul Doubles Down, Rejects FEMA: More on Paul, but the more valuable quote is here:

    As Kevin Drum explained a few months ago, "Under Bush Sr., FEMA sucked. Under Clinton, FEMA was rehabilitated and turned into a superstar agency. Under Bush Jr., FEMA sucked again. Under Obama, FEMA's doing great and responding quickly. I know, I know, we're not supposed to politicize natural disasters. Not when that politicization makes Republicans look bad, anyway. So I'll just let you draw your own conclusions from these four data points."

    This shouldn't be surprising: Republicans argue that federal agencies can't possibly be effective, so when they find one that is their instinct is to kneecap it; on the other hand, Democrats want to show that strong government agencies can and do help people, and FEMA is an especially good example because it delivers benefits when they are most desperately needed, and because no one blames the victims of storms and earthquakes. But the Republicans have to be stealthier here, otherwise it will be obvious -- as it was after Katrina -- that the problem with FEMA was that it was being run by people who were dedicated to running government into the ground. And that the only way to get value back for your taxes is to elect people who believe that government's purpose is to serve the people.

  • John Quiggin: Soaking the Rich: Starts with a quote from Matthew Yglesias, arguing:

    Many on the right and center indicate that in order to restore the economy, President Obama needs to do more to cater to the whims of rich businessmen. Many on the left feel that this is exactly wrong and that in order to restore the economy, President Obama needs to do more to stick it to the rich and dispossess them. History suggests that both are wrong.

    He goes on to give plenty of evidence for the wrongness of the first proposition, and none at all for the second.

    As has been pointed out many times, the Great Compression in income distribution during the 1950s and 1960s, driven in part by policies designed quite explicitly to "stick it to the rich," was also a time of full employment and steadily growing economic growth. And, while the success of those policies made it sensible to focus on other issues, such as civil rights, rather than seeking to push economic redistribution even further, the situation is exactly the opposite today.

    There are lots of reasons to clamp down on excessive incomes (and even more on estates). Some include that more equitable economies are healthier; that a sense of fairness is an essential component of trust and the more complex a society becomes the more important trust is; that it sends a message that too much greed is something we frown upon, and therefore it makes people think twice about engaging in predatory businesses. But it's also more efficient. It's easier to collect taxes from businesses because there are fewer of them, they are bigger, and they have to do accounting anyway. But the even more important thing that you never hear in tax debates is the simple fact that businesses are actually very good at adjusting to tax and regulatory burdens -- at least as long as they are fairly applied. If increasing taxes on business increases costs, businesses can recover by raising prices. They don't like this because they're afraid the pinch will come out of their profit margins, but that doesn't drive them out of business. In fact, businesses did very well during the Great Compression, and we suffered no lack of rich people that I recall.

    Footnote is worth quoting too:

    It seems to be all Yglesias all the time here at CT [Crooked Timber], but this reflects the fact, in the current US scene, the groups with whom productive discussion is possible are quite limited. The right lives in a parallel universe and the Very Serious centre defines itself by the presumption that both right and left are, and always must be, equally wrong (Cass Sunstein bases his entire worldview on this presumption). There is no point in debating specific issues with these groups except to the extent that it may be possible to convince individual rightists and centrists to stop being rightists and centrists. That leaves someone like me talking to neoliberals (in the US sense) on my right and to those to my left who are interested in positive discussions of policy and political strategy (a subset of a group that is not all that large in the first place).

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Weather Tracking

Brief piece in the Wichita Eagle today, titled "All-time 100-degree record still in sight":

The temperature reached 100 on Friday in Wichita, vaulting 2011 into second place all by itself in the city's list of most triple-digit days in a year.

Now at 47 days, 2011 moved out of a tie with 1980, which dominates Wichita's list of record highs. Three more 100s will tie this year with 1936 -- and forecasters now say that's not out of the question.

"We could see 100 both Saturday and Sunday," said Vanessa Pearce, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wichita.

That would bring 2011 within one of tying the all-time high. Stay tuned.

Forecasts for today and tomorrow are 98 and 96 respectively, but Wednesday is projected for 102F. It's not at all unusual to get 100 degree days in the first two, sometimes even three, September weeks. We did catch a break in early August, which is the only reason this is close.

Still, with all due respect to Hurricane Irene creeping up the east coast, the worst weather in the nation looks to be in Phoenix, which hit 117F yesterday topped by yet another duster.

As for hurricanes, I've only experienced two, and both living in Boston which isn't the sort of peak experience you get on the edge of the Gulf or across the Caribbean. Main thing I was struck by was the size and sweep of the storm: I'm used to tornados, which are devastating but tiny, hit or (mostly) miss, but when the hurricane came through everybody got hit. First one offered the whole effect, including a brief calm as the eye passed over, preceded and followed by three hours of heavy winds. That was 50 miles inland, so they probably didn't top 70 mph -- I've lived through winds that fast in Kansas, but they just come and go in a few minutes. I don't recall any hurricanes from when I lived in New York or New Jersey, although I did catch one of New York's massive blackouts. Still, that was short compared to the three days it took them to restore power following my first hurricane.

I've been collecting links about the Republicans' latest brain surge, on how they're going to hold up emergency disaster relief funds to extort further budget cuts, so more on that later. One is a Ron Paul quote about how he wishes we could turn the calendar back to 1900 -- an odd choice of nostalgia for a congressman representing Galveston, TX, where more than 8,000 people were killed by a 1900 hurricane. No matter how bad Irene is, it won't compare, mostly because we know what's coming, where it's going, and every government from South Carolina to Maine (and on into Canada) are working to minimize the damage and expedite repairs. In 1900 people justly feared Acts of God; now we have more to worry about from Acts of Cantor.

Update: Cam Patterson wrote a thoughtful comment on this post here.

Cam Patterson wrote the following comment for Expert Witness, which gave him aggravation and refused to post it. He started by quoting my last paragraph above, so we can skip that part. He continues:

I lived in Galveston (or Galvatraz, as we affectionately called it) from 1996-2000, so I know the place pretty well. There is an excellent book about the Galveston hurricane called Isaac's Storm that is worth the read to understand the interaction between nature and civilization in those days. The book became real to me when I looked at the frontispiece, which contained a map of Galveston island with an indication of which areas were destroyed by the storm. On the map, it became clear that the street that we lived on (19th at Avenue M) was the closest street to the Gulf of Mexico that wasn't totally blown away by the storm. In retrospect, that made sense -- we lived in a house built in 1885 and there were no houses that antedated the storm between us and the 18-block walk to the seawall. Eighteen blocks of total devastation just on that one side of the island, extending for miles and miles.

A key anecdote of the early part of the book is buried in the discussion of how much warning folks had about the storm. The hurricane passed over Cuba on the way to Galveston but there was no way to convey information about its size and fury in those days. The people of Galveston didn't realize there was anything special about this gulf storm compared with any other until they started seeing bodies floating in the storm runoff. Of course, by then it was too late to do anything. 110 years later, the island has never fully recovered.

I verified all of this with my grandfather when he was living, and he confirmed that you just didn't know about when a hurricane was coming. He grew up around Mobile, Alabama, much of the time directly on the waterfront, in the early part of the 20th century, so he knew firsthand. He said that a hurricane was just any other gulf storm until it got worse and worse and suddenly houses were exploding. I remember him telling me that his parents got him a row boat for fishing as a gift one day; the next day a hurricane came through and his boat was gone. No warning.

So back then no one really knew; these days there are the recidivists who deny that they can be hurt in a storm, or think that someone else will look after them, or are just plain crazy. I'm telling you all of this because as I have thought through it, it adds a lot of nuances to me about what Tom is talking about when he says Acts of Cantor.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Acts of Cantor

Brian Beutler: Cantor Spox: If There's Hurricane Damage, Costs Have to Be Paid for With Spending Cuts: With his brain locked onto a single commanding idea, and perhaps a bit intoxicated by his sense that he can just say things and make them dictates, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has decided that any unplanned, unbudgeted disaster relief has to be paid for in cash cut from other planned, budgeted programs. I never thought I'd long for the days when Republicans asserted that government should be run like a business. But the fact is that if any viable business was hit by uninsured storm losses the first thing they'd do is go to the bank and take out a loan. Same basic thing for households: say a storm smashes your car and the insurance doesn't cover replacing it, what do you do? Most folks need that car bad enough to go in debt to buy a new (or new old) one. Then, of course, you adjust your budget to cover the cost of the new debt, but you don't stop eating or paying the rent or whatever. You adjust.

The problem is that people with small minds and rigid ideas cannot adjust. They won't bend; they just snap. How such people rose to the leadership ranks of the Republican Party is probably an interesting story, but I doubt that it would come out much different from the case histories in Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: if you take these rigid, uncompromisable "principles" to their absurd conclusions, you'll find that when you finally see government swirl down the drain in Grover Norquist's bathtub, you'll see civilization vanish with it.

It feels a little weird to have written that last line, because I've always regarded the federal government as an oppressive burden as much as a blessing. I might even have applauded if had Cantor had insisted that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had to be budgeted out of cuts elsewhere, which at least would have forced Congress to think a bit setting out on paths that would soon cost trillions of dollars. On the other hand, disaster relief is something that only government can do, and that we instinctively look to government to do -- derisively, of course, when government fails miserably, like Bush did after Katrina. Moreover, while Cantor may laugh at tornados (and hurricanes and earthquakes and floods and fires and mudslides and droughts and the pretty good chance that rising sea levels will move the Florida coast to somewhere in Georgia), people who actually administer governments are remarkably fond of the programs -- just ask Gov. Rick Perry, who's been begging for more federal relief for Texas's droughts and fires.

Quite some time ago -- well before Katrina -- it occurred to me that disaster response would be the basic litmus test of competency in government. Clinton was very big on it, raising it to a cabinet level position, while Bush was utterly cavalier, treating it as just another way of dispensing crony patronage. (Of course, Jeb Bush, as governor of disaster-prone Florida, was on the ball and made out as well as could reasonably be expected -- a far different story from the Democrats in Louisiana.) Moreover, between global warming and relentless development especially in risky areas, disasters are becoming increasingly common, and increasingly expensive. So why do Republicans like Cantor want to hamstring government's ability to deal with disasters that affect potentially massive numbers of our own people, on our own land, dependent on our own infrastructure? Stupid doesn't begin to cover it. They are slaves to the fixed ideas they call principles. Next thing you know they'll look at something like Katrina and insist that charities can handle it, or speculate that if only you cut taxes further the private sector would swoop in and fix everything.

Steve Benen: Cantor's Callousness Turns Preemptive: Another link on Cantor and disaster -- an association that even God may have trouble rivaling:

We talked earlier about House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) insisting that federal disaster relief in the wake of this week's earthquake would no longer be automatic. Whereas Congress used to provide emergency funds after a disaster, without regard for budget caps of offsets, Republicans no longer believe in such an approach. [ . . . ]

A while back, during a different debate, John Cole noted, "If these guys were comic book villains, no one would buy it because it's just too over the top." It's a sentiment that comes to mind all the time.

Tom DeLay never went this far. No one has ever gone this far. U.S. officials have always put everything else aside when families and communities are hit and need a hand, but now, thanks to the new House Republican majority, those principles have been cast aside.

There's also a 2012 angle to this, by the way. Mitt Romney in June agreed with the callous right-wing line, saying, "We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids."

In context, "those things" referred to aiding American communities ravaged by a natural disaster.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Music Week

Music: Current count 18609 [18547] rated (+62), 846 [861] unrated (-15). Worked plenty hard enough to get things rated this week, but that doesn't explain the huge bump in the rated count. The big change was that I went back and systematically compared my Rhapsody ratings against my database and found a bunch of discrepancies. That was in fact what I was looking for: cases where I changed a grade after an initial Streamnotes entry -- in most of those I later obtained CDs and wound up bumping them up a bit. I also found cases where I fiddled with the grade before posting the Streamnotes column, and I found 20 or so cases where I failed to write the Streamnotes grade into the database. (Didn't count so that's a swag, but I almost never hit 40 records a week without doing a lot more Rhapsody than I did -- did some, but mostly Jazz Prospecting.)

Jazz Prospecting (JCG #28, Part 3)

Cutting through a lot of backlog here -- 27 new records this week (plus 2 Rhapsody), 29 last week. Mail picked up a bit, as I'm starting to get September (and even a couple October; didn't check the Darius Jones release date until it was written) records -- just as Obama's jobs program (following Bush's Iraq War "product rollout") can wait until after Labor Day, so can the new Tyshawn Sorey record. Still, a welcome reminder that this summer is going to end sometime -- maybe even the worst is behind us. (After all, we only have four 100F days in the current 5-day forecast.)

Haven't heard a peep from the Village Voice, so no idea what's going to happen to there: maybe another August casualty? Also don't know how the next few weeks are going to shake out. I may have another big week like this one next week, or may come up empty -- depends on whether I have to travel, which will be dictated by factors beyond of my control.

Added a couple notes on future release dates, but don't necessarily have all of them. I never think about trying to get reviews out on or near release dates -- I just assume I'm always going to be late. Some publicists like to set long lead times so that occasionally leads to problems. My rule of thumb is that if I get a finished-looking CD, I figure it's fair game; if I get an advance, I usually ignore it until a finished copy appears, or I start reading about it elsewhere and wonder why I got stiffed. Hard to keep track of everything to everyone's satisfaction.

One more note, regarding the Flail "correction" below. I never grade a record down because I can't stand the artist's website, but sometimes I mention it because it's made my life more difficult. Rarely, actually: could have said much the same thing about Sam Yahel but didn't, and there are probably others I've already forgotten. What I appreciate in a website is information: concise and organized so deftly that even I can't get confused. Sad to say, don't see a lot of that.

Aimée Allen: Winters & Mays (2010 [2011], Azuline Music): Singer, wrote (or co-wrote with brother David Allen) 6 of 12 songs here (plus added lyrics to a Pat Metheny piece). From what little bio I've been able to piece together, studied at Yale, then got law degrees from Columbia and the Sorbonne in France. Two previous albums, one in French. Practices law by day and sings by night. Band includes Pete McCann on guitar (sauve and exceptionally tasty here), as well as piano, bass, and drums, plus Victor Prieto on accordion for three cuts. One Brazilian piece (Powell, de Moraes), nice percussion there. Some of the covers are striking -- she really digs into "Bye Bye Blackbird," for instance. The originals are harder to gauge, but she's smart, determined, and can make a point. B+(**)

Marco Cappelli Acoustic Trio: Les Nuages en France (2010 [2011], Mode/Avant): Guitarist, b. 1965 in Naples, in Italy; studied at Conservatario di Santa Cecilia in Rome, then at Musik-Akademie in Basel, Switzerland. Website shows four previous albums, including one as EGP (Extreme Guitar Project). Acoustic Trio adds Ken Filiano on double bass and Satoshi Takeishi on percussion. Bass seems louder and more pronounced than the guitar, which furtively sneaks in and out, with a scratchy abstractness. Takeishi is superb. Record is reportedly inspired by Fred Vargas thrillers, and the booklet provides what appear to be lyrics (in French, with English trots), but no one sings -- just a little something to read along. B+(***)

Brian Charette: Learning to Count (2009 [2011], SteepleChase): Organ player, fourth album since 2000 (according to AMG and his website, although the latter doesn't list them, and the former doesn't include one I've heard from 2008 (Missing Floor) and a newer Music for Organ Sextette that I have a CDR of. This is a trio, with Mike DiRubbo on alto sax and Jochen Rückert on drums -- same idea as DiRubbo's Chronos earlier this year (which had Rudy Royston on drums), the writing credits favoring the leader in both cases (with this one adding three covers: Wayne Shorter, John Lewis, Steve Winwood). DiRubbo's always a terrific mainstream player, so the main difference seems to be in the writing: Charette is wonderfully restrained, nudging the pieces forward without showboating let alone wallowing in soul jazz clichés. I hear a lot of organ records and usually wonder: why bother? This works. A-

Avishai Cohen: Seven Seas (2010 [2011], Sunnyside): Bassist, b. 1970 in Israel, has a dozen albums since 1998, establishing himself as a superb composer, adding electric bass to his acoustic, even plays piano on two cuts here, and often working with oud (Amos Hoffman here, also credited with electric guitar) suggesting a more open Middle Eastern dialogue. Cut in Sweden with a lot of guys whose names end in "sson" -- plus Jimmy Greene on soprano and tenor sax, Shai Maestro on piano, and Itamar Doari on percussion. I could do with fewer vocal passages -- booklet provides trots for three short songs, and there are choral background passages -- the instrumental passages are powerfully evocative. B+(**) [August 30]

Yamandu Costa/Hamilton de Holanda: Live! (2008 [2011], Adventure Music): Brazilian duets. Costa plays 7-string guitar, has at least eight albums since 2004, but this is the first I've heard; de Holanda plays 10-string mandolin, has at least ten albums, a natural pick once bluegrass mandolinist Mike Marshall took a major interest in choro and launched this label. The two string instruments mesh like classical chamber music, the attack more pronounced, mostly fast and furious. B+(*)

Claire Dickson: Scattin' Doll (2009-10 [2011], NDR): Standards singer, b. 1997 -- that's right, 13 years old or less when she cut this, her first album. I certainly wouldn't have guessed her age, especially third track in when she growls and scats her way through "Black Coffee" -- a song that ages all who touch it. She doesn't have an especially memorable voice, and there's nothing very distinctive about her phrasing, but she shows some sass and class in her songs, and can scat credibly. Three cuts have horns, which help but are front-loaded, so the record tails off a bit. B+(*)

John Escreet: The Age We Live In (2010 [2011], Mythology): Pianist, b. 1984 in Doncaster, UK; moved to New York 2006. Third album since 2008: quartet with David Binney (alto sax, electronics), Wayne Krantz (guitar), and Marcus Gilmore (drums, percussion), but adds extra musicians -- brass (Brad Mason, Max Seigel) and strings (Christian Howes, credited with the whole kaboodle not just violin). The electronics are the clue: Escreet plays more electric keyb than acoustic piano, and the overall vibe pushes into fusion territory. Binney is a bright spot, and this is similar to his Graylen Epicenter (on the same label). Can't say much about the strings, and suspect it's just as well I didn't notice. B+(*)

European Movement Jazz Orchestra: EMJO: Live in Coimbra (2010 [2011], Clean Feed): Can parse the cover at least two ways -- e.g., artist could just as well be "EMJO [European Movement Jazz Orchestra]. Group was formed in 2007 "with the idea of being the cultural ambassador of Germany, Portugal, and Slovenia during the time of their presidency of the European council." Those nations seem to cover the many names I don't recognize in this slightly enlarged big band (5 trumpets, 5 reeds, 4 trombones, piano, guitar, 2 basses, drums) -- Benny Brown is the only name that looks unaccounted for, although I can't swear the obvious East Europeans (Markovic, Kopac, Pukl, Draksler, Modern Kukic) are all from Slovenia. Isidor Leitinger conducts. Five of six pieces come from five different band members. In conception combines fado and "Blasmusik" and "Slovenian poetry"; in effect, postmodern but not quite free, with an industrial undertow. B+(*)

Orrin Evans: Freedom (2010 [2011], Posi-Tone): Pianist, b. 1976 in Trenton, NJ, raised and based in Philadelphia, studied at Rutgers with Kenny Barron. Has a dozen-plus albums since 1994. Seven of nine cuts are piano trio here, with Dwayne Burno on bass and either Byron Landham or Anwar Marshall on drums. The other two cuts add Larry McKenna on tenor sax. First trio cut is up and strong -- song is by Charles Fambrough, one of three people the album is dedicated to -- but the sax cut drops the piano into the background, as happens again late in the album when the piano finally reasserts itself. B+(**)

Jerry Gonzalez: Jerry Gonzalez y el Comando de la Clave (2011, Sunnyside): Trumpet player, b. 1949 in New York, played congas for Dizzy Gillespie, then moved on to Eddie Palmieri's band, then his own Fort Apache Band. Moved to Spain around 2000, hooking up with Flamenco musicians for Jerry Gonzalez y los Piratas del Flamenco (recorded 2001, released 2004), and now this belated sequel. (Don't have recording dates here. Again, Diego "El Cigala" sings, but the focus is less on him than on the beat -- Alberto "Chele" Cobo's clave, Israel Suarez "Piraba"'s cajon. Several standards appear -- "Tenderly," "Love for Sale," "In a Sentimental Mood," "Obsesion" -- and that's where the trumpet breaks away from the distractions. B+(**) [August 30]

Eric Harland: Voyager: Live by Night (2008 [2011], Sunnyside): Drummer, b. 1978, first album under his own name (looks like it was originally released in 2010 on Space Time in France; Sunnyside picks a lot of its records off French labels), but has a long list of credits since 1997. He wrote all but the last two pieces here: one by Sam Rivers, and a four-part thing by pianist Taylor Eigsti. Band includes Walter Smith III (tenor sax), Julian Lage (guitar), Eigsti (piano), and Harish Raghavan (bass). Lage is often dazzling, and Smith has a standout night. Drummer too. B+(***)

Darius Jones: Big Gurl (Smell My Dream) (2011, AUM Fidelity): Alto saxophonist, second trio album, this one with Adam Lane (bass) and Jason Nazary (drums), which seem to be his forte -- much more impressive than his duo with Matthew Shipp, let alone his Little Women group album. Intense, passionate free sax, although he's also expressive when he slows down. Dedicates this to George Clinton, but you won't find much on the one. A- [October 11]

Kambar Kalendarov & Kutman Sultanbekov: Jaw (2011, Cantaloupe Music): Spine just says "JAW"; the two names above are in small print on the front cover, and several more musicians are named inside -- AMG also credits Nurlanbek Nyshanov, who claims 4 compositions (vs. 3 and 2 for the others; everything else belongs to trad.). Recorded in Kirghizstan, mostly using Kirghiz jaw harps -- Jew's harp is a corruption, and a misnomer. Each note has a lot of overtones so you mostly get simple melodies with lots of reverb, some resembling what you get in Tuvan throat singing. Some pieces have other Kirghiz instruments -- woodwinds, some kind of cello. Not much differentiation, but a distinctive exotic sound. B

Dave King Trucking Company: Good Old Light (2011, Sunnyside): Drummer, best known in the Bad Plus piano trio, but also in the notable Minneapolis group, Happy Apple. Second album with his name up front, the first his Indelicate solo, this very much a group album: Chris Speed and Brandon Wozniak on tenor sax, Erik Fratzke (of Happy Apple) on electric guitar, and Adam Linz on upright bass. Densely rhythmic and upbeat -- reminds me a bit of Claudia Quintet (with Speed) only in a deeper groove. B+(***)

Lisa Kirchner: Something to Sing About (2010 [2011], Albany): Singer; website says songwriter (1 song plus some lyrics here), and actress (evidently some theatre and TV, but nothing in IMDB). Describes father as "a contemporary classical composer, conductor and pianist" -- must be Leon Kirchner (1919-2009) -- and mother as "a coloratura soprano who had performed classical lieder and show tunes in New York supper clubs." One cached broken link identifies a Lisa (Beth) Kirchner as b. 1953 in Los Angeles, which is possibly right. Fourth album since 2000. Don't know about the others, but aside for her one original, the other seventeen songs here start with music from a recent classical composer -- Charles Ives is the oldest by far, followed by Aaron Copland, with Wynton Marsalis the youngest (again, by far; I'd have to go back and recheck to be sure, but William Schimmel, b. 1946, who also plays accordion here, is probably second-youngest). Some pieces came with lyrics, but for most of them she adds a found text -- William Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, and K.D. Lang are some sources I recognize -- or writes her own. The band usually includes Sherman Irby (alto sax, flute), Schimmel (accordion), Joel Fan or Xavier Davis (piano), Dwayne Burno or Vicente Archer (bass), Ron Jackson (guitar), and Willie Jones III (drums). Described like that, I don't see how this can possibly work, yet it does. The songs have no whiff of aria or lieder, the voice is on the sly side real divas never entertain, the band evens out the rough edges, with Schimmel's accordion nudging the songs into shape and Irby a delight. B+(***)

Jessie Marquez: All I See Is Sky (2011, Carena): Singer, from Eugene, OR (as near as I can figure out). Father grew up in Cuba; she visited Cuba in 1996 and wound up recording her first album there. This is her third, counting one with guitarist Mike Denny's name also on the cover. She has co-credits on 7 of 13 songs; sings and writes a more in Spanish than in English, also taking the Jobim closer in Spanish. Rafael Trujillo's percussion keeps the vibe going, and John Nastos adds some tasty sax, then gets the right effect switching to flute on the Jobim. B+(*)

Motif: Art Transplant (2011, Clean Feed): Quintet, with Norwegian bassist Ole Morten Vågan (b. 1979) the principal and presumed leader -- the other candidate is the trumpet player noted on the front cover in small print as "(with Axel Dörner)," who wrote one piece. The others are Atle Nymo (tenor sax, bass clarinet), Håvard Wiik (piano, plays in Free Fall with Ken Vandermark), and Håkon Mjåset Johansen (drums). Hard bop lineup, but veers off in various directions: a little industrial noise, some flush piano stretches, horns going off in various directions. B+(*)

Beata Pater: Blue (2011, B&B): Singer, born and grew up in Poland, moved to US 15-plus years ago. Fifth album since 1993. Most of the pieces are originals by her and/or piano-organ player Mark Little -- the opener is "Afro Blue" (Mongo Santamaria), closer "Blue in Green" (Miles Davis), with two more pieces by Krzysztof Komeda in the middle. Voice has a thin, unreal quality, indulging in a lot of scat. Gets a bit better toward the end when the beat picks up. B

Jean-Michel Pilc: Essential (2011, Motéma): Pianist, b. 1960 in Paris, France; at least 14 records since 1989, most from 2000 on. Solo piano, roughly half originals and half covers; not as fast and furious as some of his trios, but interesting, easiest to factor on the tortured originals. B+(**)

Mark Rapp's Melting Pot: Good Eats (2010 [2011], Dinemac): Trumpet player, from South Carolina, moved to New Orleans and hooked up with Elis Marsalis; now seems to split his time between New York and Geneva, Switzerland. Has a previous album which should be in my queue somewhere -- let that be a cautionary tale for folks who send me advances only; also The Strayhorn Project with Don Braden's name listed first. The meltdown here is part soul jazz (Joe Kaplowitz on organ and Ahmad Mansour on guitar), wrapped around some bebop-boogaloo (6 of the first 7 songs are by Lou Donaldson) with a funk chaser ("Everything I Do Is Gonna Be Funky," Quincy Jones' "Streetbeater," and closing with an irresistibly bouncy "The Glory of Love." Rapp wrote the title cut. Also says here he plays didgeridoo, too. Don Brade guests on five cuts, tenor sax and alto flute. B+(**)

Ed Reed: Born to Be Blue (2010 [2011], Blue Shorts): Standards singer, b. 1929, grew up in Watts, but didn't get around to cutting a record until 2006 -- spent too much time in San Quentin, for one thing, even if it did give him the chance to sing with Art Pepper. Starts off slow, especially on the title track. Does get some help from Anton Schwartz's tenor sax, and gets more comfortable bouncing between vocalese and Joe Turner, but not much. B

Audrey Silver: Dream Awhile (2009 [2011], Messy House): Standards singer, got an MBA and worked in advertising, A&:R at CBS Masterworks, then became Director of Marketing at a jazz label (Chesky). Cites Jon Raney (pianist son of guitarist Jimmy Raney) for pointing her back to performing, and Sheila Jordan for lessons. Second album, backed with piano-bass-drums plus guitar on 3 (of 11) cuts. Can start a song on her own and find a unique path through it. B+(**)

John Stowell/Michael Zilber Quartet: Shot Through With Beauty (2007-09 [2011], Origin): Guitar and tenor/soprano sax respectively, with John Shifflett (acoustic bass) and Jason Lewis (drums) below the line. Stowell is the senior member, from Connecticut, seems to be based in Portland, OR. Cut his first record in 1978, then not much until he landed on Origin in 1998. He has a distinctive, seductive style, with several recent HM candidates (mostly under the group name Scenes). Zilber plays tenor and soprano sax; has four records since 1988. He wrote four songs here (one co-credited to Stowell); Shifflett and Lewis wrote one each -- the other four are from Kenny Wheeler, Dizzy Gillespie, and John Scofield (two). Often-delicate postbop, the sax personable, the guitar adds to the sparkle. B+(**)

Tribute to JJ Cale, Volume 1: The Vocal Sessions (2010, Zoho Roots): Cale, b. 1938, is a singer-songwriter from Oklahoma. He was best known in the 1970s: I panned Okie (1974) in my ancient Rekord Report, then didn't bother with him until I got a set of 1973-83 Unreleased Recordings in 2007 and slammed it too. He liked blues form but couldn't bring himself to play blues, scruples that don't bother the label's stable, so they mostly just play and shout louder: Swamp Cabbage, JJ Grey, Jimmy Hall, Rufus Huff, Greg Skaff, Dixie Tabernacle, nobody but the Persuasions you'd have heard of if not on the label's mailing list. I've been avoiding this, but it's pretty tolerable, with "Same Old Blues" markedly improved. Otherwise, the only choice cuts are by the Persuasions, who are way out of this league. Never got Volume 2: The Instrumental Sessions -- just as well with me. B-

Vicious World: Plays the Music of Rufus Wainwright (2010 [2011], Spinaround): Leaders of this project are saxophonist Aaron Irwin (b. 1978 in Decatur, IL; has a couple FSNT albums; arranged 7 of 11 songs here) and trombonist Matthew McDonald (no idea; arranged the other 4 songs). The group also includes guitar (Sebastian Noelle), bass (Thomson Kneeland), drums (Danny Fischer), violin (Eliza Cho), and cello (Maria Jeffers). I know a great deal about Wainwright's parents, all the way down to "Rufus Is a Tit Man," but virtually nothing of his own music: tried his first album and never went back. The rock rhythms are straightforward, the guitar and bass structural; the trombone makes an especially adept lead instrument here, and the strings add essential texture. B+(***)

Sam Yahel: From Sun to Sun (2010 [2011], Origin): Plays piano and organ -- probably has many more organ credits in his career than piano, but lists piano here first. Surprisingly little biography available on web -- even on his own website once I hacked through the Flash: moved to New York in 1990, played with a lot of people; seventh album, has about two dozen side credits, with Norah Jones and Joshua Redman prominent. Trio with Matt Penman on bass, Jochen Rueckert (aka Rückert) on drums. Piano is snappy and assured; organ slinky, which is about right. B+(**)

Yeahwon (2010, ArtistShare): Vocalist Yeahwon Shin, from South Korea ("suburbs of Seoul"), moved to New York to study at New School. First album: aside from one Korean folk song, everything else is Brazilian, sung in Portuguese, with Yeahwon co-credited on one piece with Egberto Gismonti. Core group is Ben Street (bass), Jeff Ballard (drums), and either Kevin Hays or Alon Yavnai (piano), with producer Sun Chung on guitar (6 of 11 cuts), with Mark Turner (tenor sax) and Rob Curto (accordion) on one cut each, Gismonti on the "Epilogue," and various percussionists. I can see the attraction, but not the point. 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.

Paul Motian: The Windmills of Your Mind (2010 [2011], Winter & Winter): Aside from the intro and its reprise at the end, a very low key standards album, sung in not much more than a whisper by Petra Haden, with guitarist Bill Frisell slipping in fine touches, Thomas Morgan steady on bass, and the leader doing whatever it is he's been doing for fifty-some years now. B+(*) [Rhapsody]

Frank Tate: Thanks for the Memory: Frank Tate's Musical Tribute to Bobby Short (2011, Arbors): Bassist, b. 1943, has a couple albums since 1993, many more side credits going back to Zoot Sims in 1981, Ruby Braff in 1991, a lot of Arbors artists since then. Short is a name I barely recognize -- in fact, I missed him in putting together my database of people I should know about, something in need of a fix. B. 1924, d. 2005, played piano and sung standards, mostly working night clubs. He recorded close to two dozen albums from 1955 to 2001, including a series of songbooks in the 1970s (Noel Coward, Cole Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart; his Andy Razaf came out in 1987). Tate describes Short as "the most influential musician in his career." With Mike Renzi on piano and Joe Ascione on drums, Tate rounded up "a half-dozen of Bobby Short's saloon colleagues" to take two or three songs each: Barbara Carroll, Rebecca Kilgore, Daryl Sherman, Charles Cochran, Ronny Whyte, and Chris Gillespie. All classic songbook fare -- comfort food in the trade. B+(*) [Rhapsody]

No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.

Some corrections and further notes on recent prospecting:

The Flail: Live at Smalls (2010 [2011], Smalls Live): Post-hardbop quintet, fast and tight over a 71-minute set. I got so flustered at their Flash-only website that I gave up and vented, unable to ferret out their discography or biographies which turn out all to be there somewhere, so I missed 2 of 4 records going back to 2002 -- they do play like a band that's hung together for quite some time. Maybe I was too busy trying to shut down the sound that erupts every time you click anything -- I was, after all, trying to listen to their CD at the time. Or maybe I was just annoyed at having to fight through layers of PDF for a couple paragraphs of text, or scroll through those idiot Flash text widgets. God, I hate Flash! But if you're in the market for a fully tricked out, highly counterintuitive website, check out -- must be someone's labor of love, for this sort of thing doesn't come easy. As for the CD: B+(**)

Unpacking: Found in the mail over the last week:

  • Airto: Fingers (1973, CTI/Masterworks Jazz)
  • Andrew Atkinson Quartet: Live: Keep Looking Forward (Vic Firth/Paiste/Sonor)
  • Rahsaan Barber: Everyday Magic (Jazz Music City): Aug. 30
  • Stefano Battaglia Trio: The River of Anyder (ECM): advance, Oct. 4
  • Zach Brock: The Magic Number (Secret Fort)
  • Jackie Cain & Roy Kral: A Wilder Alias (1973, CTI/Masterworks Jazz)
  • Chick Corea/Stefano Bollani: Orvieto (ECM): advance, Sept. 27
  • Patrick Cornelius: Maybe Steps (Posi-Tone)
  • Joe Farrell: Outback (1970, CTI/Masterworks Jazz)
  • Fred Fried and Core: EnCore (Ballet Tree)
  • The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble: Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff (ECM): advance, Oct. 4
  • Darren Johnston's Gone to Chicago: The Big Lift (Porto Franco): Sept. 20
  • Mambo Legends Orchestra: ¡Ten Cuidao! Watch Out! (Zoho, 2CD)
  • Marilyn Mazur: Celestial Circle (ECM): advance, Oct. 4
  • The Nice Guy Trio: Sidewalks and Alleys/Walking Music (Porto Franco): Sept. 20
  • Dino Saluzzi: Navidad de los Andes (ECM): advance, Sept. 20
  • Kenny Shanker: Steppin' Up (Posi-Tone)
  • Tyshawn Sorey: Oblique - I (Pi): Sept. 27
  • Geoff Vidal: She Likes That (Arts and Music Factory): Oct. 4
  • Randy Weston: Blue Moses (1972, CTI/Masterworks Jazz)


  • Elizabeth Cook: Welder (Thirty One Tigers)
  • Jimmie Dale Gilmore/The Wronglers: Heirloom Music (Neanderthal Noise)
  • Kanye West/Jay-Z: Watch the Throne (Roc-A-Fella)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Weekend Roundup: Part 2

More links and comments, mostly domestic this time, which is to say mostly about the plague of stupidity encircling us (although less of the low-lying fruit since I've already posted separately on Rick Perry and Michele Bachman):

  • Steve Benen: Taxpayer-financed Campaigning: So now Republicans are griping about Obama using the perks of his office to campaign for reelection, much like Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter (and by all means who can forget Nixon?) did. This got me thinking: there is little doubt that in 2012 Obama will raise more money than whoever the Republican is who runs against him, and that Obama will take advantage of his incumbency (not that he won't get blamed for lots of stuff along the way). So why don't the Republicans seek the moral high ground here? (I mean, other than that they're snakes and skunks; I just meant to raise a rhetorical question.) These unfair advantages ultimately cut both ways, and the Democrats have gotten screwed as often as not (e.g., 2004), so this would seem like an opportunity for both parties to agree for their mutual future benefit. Pass a constitutional amendment which: prevents a standing president from running for another term; maybe works in some other term limits Republicans used to claim they believed in; and mandates equal public financing for all presidential and congressional elections. This wouldn't pass quickly enough to help the Republicans in 2012, but it would give them a big talking point. And public campaign financing should be irresistible to the Democrats (maybe not the ones actually in office, who have proven that they got their own, but to virtually all Democratic Party voters). That would indeed be a grand bargain: a stake for democracy, a strike against the special interests that both parties agree drive the other to be deceitful scumbags.

  • Steve Benen: Buffett's Good Advice: Long quote from the billionaire here, saying basically that higher taxes on the rich, including higher capital gains taxes, never hurt investment or job creation. Read it, especially:

    I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone -- not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77 -- shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain. People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off. And to those who argue that higher rates hurt job creation, I would note that a net of nearly 40 million jobs were added between 1980 and 2000. You know what's happened since then: lower tax rates and far lower job creation.

    Benen adds:

    Remember, as far as congressional Republicans are concerned, what Buffett recommends is tantamount to radical socialism. Any proposal to increase taxes on anyone by any amount -- even on the wealthiest of the wealthiest of the wealthy -- is an automatic deal-breaker in GOP circles. Indeed, under House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's plan, widely endorsed by Republicans everywhere, what the rich really need is another tax break.

  • Stanley B Greenberg: Why Voters Tune Out Democrats: My suspicion is that it's because the Democrats are two-faced: they have to run for contributions and for votes and they come from different types of people, so they wind up cancelling themselves out. The weirder problem is why voters tune in Republicans, but knowing that the programs that they're pushing are unpopular, Republican think tanks work extra hard at designing palatable packaging, even if it's as oxymoronic as Clean Coal. But some part is likely the attention deficit, preponderance of myths, and the inability to think critically.

    When we conducted our election-night national survey after last year's Republican sweep, voters strongly chose new investment over a new national austerity. They thought Democrats were more likely to champion the middle class. And as has become clear in the months since, the public does not share conservatives' views on rejecting tax cuts and cutting retirement programs. Numerous recent polls have shown that the public sides with the president and Democrats on raising taxes to get to a balanced budget.

    But in smaller, more probing focus groups, voters show they are fairly cynical about Democratic politicians' stands. They tune out the politicians' fine speeches and plans and express sentiments like these: "It's just words." "There's just such a control of government by the wealthy that whatever happens, it's not working for all the people; it's working for a few of the people." "We don't have a representative government anymore."

    This distrust of government and politicians is unfolding as a full-blown crisis of legitimacy sidelines Democrats and liberalism. Just a quarter of the country is optimistic about our system of government -- the lowest since polls by ABC and others began asking this question in 1974. But a crisis of government legitimacy is a crisis of liberalism. It doesn't hurt Republicans. If government is seen as useless, what is the point of electing Democrats who aim to use government to advance some public end? [ . . . ]

    Our research shows that the growth of self-identified conservatives began in the fall of 2008 with the Wall Street bailout, well before Mr. Obama embarked on his recovery and spending program. The public watched the elite and leaders of both parties rush to the rescue. The government saved irresponsible executives who bankrupted their own companies, hurt many people and threatened the welfare of the country. When Mr. Obama championed the bailout of the auto companies and allowed senior executives at bailed-out companies to take bonuses, voters concluded that he was part of the operating elite consensus. If you owned a small business that was in trouble or a home or pension that lost much of its value, you were on your own. As people across the country told me, the average citizen doesn't "get money for free." Their conclusion: Government works for the irresponsible, not the responsible.

    Everything they witness affirms the public's developing view of how government really works. They see a nexus of money and power, greased by special interest lobbyists and large campaign donations, that makes these outcomes irresistible. They do not believe the fundamentals have really changed in Mr. Obama's Washington.

    What should Democrats do?

    The Democrats have to start detoxifying politics by proposing to severely limit or bar individual and corporate campaign contributions, which would mean a fight with the Supreme Court. They must make the case for public financing of campaigns and force the broadcast and cable networks to provide free time for candidate ads. And they must become the strongest advocates for transparency in campaign donations and in the lobbying of elected officials.

    If they want to win the trust of the public, Democrats should propose taxing lobbyist expenses and excessive chief executive bonuses and put a small fee on the sale of stocks, bonds and other financial instruments. By radically simplifying the tax code to allow only a few deductions, the Democrats would generate new revenue and remove the loopholes that allow special interests to win favorable treatment.

  • Paul Krugman: Little or Nothing: Actually, that title, was meant to characterize the alternatives Obama's chief business advisers -- they used to have economists, but all of them have now fled the room (unless you count Gene Sperling, which I don't) -- are hashing out. But that's a little optimistic: the choices I keep reading about are more like Nothing or Worse. Since none of this makes any economic sense, presumably it has something to do with politics.

    And as for the political side, I guess I'm puzzled: you have an obstructionist GOP, and rather than point out that obstruction, you restrict yourself to calling for measures that this obstructionist opposition might actually accept. Doesn't this mean that voters learn nothing about the extent to which the GOP is in fact blocking job creation?

    Mark Thoma notes something else: the administration's vision of what to do with a second term still doesn't include job creation, it's all about more Grand Bargain deficit reduction. As he says,

    The best thing the administration can do is abandon support for struggling households now so Obama can get reelected and reduce social insurance programs that help struggling households?

    It all makes me think of an 80s-era joke about centrist Democrats, which was that their big difference from Republicans was compassion: the Democrats cared about the victims of their policies.

    OK, to be fair, an Obama second term would be a lot less hard on working Americans than, say, the Texasification of America that would take place under Rick Perry. But "not as vicious as the GOP" isn't exactly a stirring slogan.

    With Texas governor Rick Perry in the GOP presidential race, Krugman has Texas on his mind -- see his column: The Texas Unmiracle:

    It's true that Texas entered recession a bit later than the rest of America, mainly because the state's still energy-heavy economy was buoyed by high oil prices through the first half of 2008. Also, Texas was spared the worst of the housing crisis, partly because it turns out to have surprisingly strict regulation of mortgage lending.

    Despite all that, however, from mid-2008 onward unemployment soared in Texas, just as it did almost everywhere else.

    In June 2011, the Texas unemployment rate was 8.2 percent. That was less than unemployment in collapsed-bubble states like California and Florida, but it was slightly higher than the unemployment rate in New York, and significantly higher than the rate in Massachusetts. By the way, one in four Texans lacks health insurance, the highest proportion in the nation, thanks largely to the state's small-government approach. Meanwhile, Massachusetts has near-universal coverage thanks to health reform very similar to the "job-killing" Affordable Care Act. [ . . . ]

    What Texas shows is that a state offering cheap labor and, less important, weak regulation can attract jobs from other states. I believe that the appropriate response to this insight is "Well, duh." The point is that arguing from this experience that depressing wages and dismantling regulation in America as a whole would create more jobs -- which is, whatever Mr. Perry may say, what Perrynomics amounts to in practice -- involves a fallacy of composition: every state can't lure jobs away from every other state.

    In fact, at a national level lower wages would almost certainly lead to fewer jobs -- because they would leave working Americans even less able to cope with the overhang of debt left behind by the housing bubble, an overhang that is at the heart of our economic problem.

    I'm sure as the season develops, Michael Lind will more to say about the Texas (and indeed Dixiecrat) preference for driving wages down to approximate slavery levels. His book, Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics was nominally about Bush but more generally about "the second triumphal return of the South's plantation aristocracy" (as I wrote in a note on the book, though I'm probably cribbing off Lind).

  • Robert Reich: How the Democrats Could Have Saved Healthcare:

    Two appellate judges in Atlanta -- one appointed by President Bill Clinton and one by George H.W. Bush -- have just decided the Constitution doesn't allow the federal government to require individuals to buy health insurance. [ . . . ]

    Had the president and the Democrats stuck to their guns during the healthcare debate and insisted on Medicare for all, or at least a public option, they wouldn't now be facing the possible unraveling of the new healthcare law.

    After all, Social Security and Medicare -- the nation's two most popular safety nets -- require every working American to "buy" them. The purchase happens automatically in the form of a deduction from everyone's paychecks.

    But because Social Security and Medicare are government programs they don't feel like mandatory purchases. They're more like tax payments, which is what they are -- payroll taxes.

    There's no question payroll taxes are constitutional, because there's no doubt that the federal government can tax people in order to finance particular public benefits.

    Americans don't mind mandates in the form of payroll taxes for Social Security or Medicare. In fact, both programs are so popular even conservative Republicans were heard to shout "don't take away my Medicare!" at rallies opposed to the new healthcare law.

    I wouldn't say that Obama ever had a single-payer position to cave in on. As I recall he couldn't wait to cut out the a public option that fell far short of single-payer. It's also quite likely that given the political balance, the pervasiveness of lobby money, and right-wing control of most of the media, that a single-payer program couldn't have been enacted by that Congress, but it is fair to indict Obama for not following that route. For one thing, it would have been much simpler and much more comprehensible than the plan that passed. In other words, it would have been something that savvy politicians could have gone out and sold the people on, not least because all you have to do is to build on the popularity of Medicare. Obama didn't do that because he would rather get in bed with the insurance industry, the AMA, the pharmaceutical companies, etc. If he thought he had to do that for practical purposes -- if he honestly thought that by lining up all the interested parties behind a discarded Republican plan would just sail through Congress without opposition -- he was, well, amazingly stupid.

    Reich's other point -- that the mandates are necessary in order to pool risks in a private insurance scheme -- doesn't strike me as obviously correct. The purpose of mandates is to get around the adverse selection problems inherent in health insurance -- that sick people would buy insurance and healthy people wouldn't, so the pool becomes skewed by the preponderance of the sick. But the fact is that lots of healthy people want and buy health insurance, because the risks are often unknown and are so extreme financially. Plus, most of the people who don't buy health insurance now aren't just being cheap or feeling lucky: they mostly can't afford it, which is a problem that goes away with subsidies. So if you eliminate the mandate (but keep the subsidies, the rules about prior conditions, etc.), you may get a slightly sicker, more expensive pool, plus the added overhead of providing emergency care to free riders, but you also get at least a bit of pressure to price policies lower (since buyers have the option of walking away). It seems to me that this would still work better than the previous scheme, even if nowhere near as well as a true single-payer system.

  • Joe Romm: Oklahoma Drought Now Far Worse Than When Gov. Mary Falin Asked All Oklahomans to Pray for Rain:

    That was two week[s] ago. The result is that Oklahoma went from the drought condition below on the right below to the one on the left in just two short weeks:

    Yes, in a mere two weeks, another 30% of the state went into extreme or exceptional drought! Now the entire state is under severe drought or worse.

    For some reason, science-denying southern Republican governors keep returning to one particular ineffectual 'adaptation' strategy: "Texas Drought Now Far, Far Worse Than When Gov. Rick Perry Issued Proclamation Calling on All Texans to Pray for Rain" (7/15/11).

    And speaking of Gov. Perry, who apparently is edging closer and closer to a presidential run, his state has been utterly devastated since his proclamation.

  • Jim Sleeper: Fareed Zakaria Has a Problem: Rather long piece detailing a Charlie Rose segment where Fareed Zakaria and Jon Chait beat up on Drew Westen -- author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (2007) and a recent op-ed arguing that Obama wasn't doing a very effective job of communicating with the American people -- among other things dismissing Westen's expertise because he'd never run for dogcatcher (also true of Zakaria and Chait, but in the heat of battle who's counting?). Sleeper is incisive enough on Zakaria, a smart guy who's always willing to compromise a view in order to gain the acknowledgment of elites of how smart he is. Also provides a synopsis of Westen's piece, which I wrote more about here. But the part that bugged me the most (I caught the last part of the show) was:

    This was all too much for Jonathan Chait, who told Rose that Westen's is "a dramatic overestimation of the power of rhetoric to affect policies in Congress and to affect public opinion. There's just not a lot of evidence that it has that kind of effect, anything like the effect that -- that he says.

    "I think liberals have a hard time holding on to power and being comfortable with power and the compromise is held with power," Chait continued. "I think it's something in the liberal psyche. . . . I am not the psychologist here, but liberals turn against every single Democratic President with regularity. That was what the whole Nader campaign in 2000 was about, this fury that Clinton was a sell out.

    "Now we've had a President who's been vastly more successful in advancing the liberal agenda through Congress and you've got liberals angry again. . . . But the anger at Obama to me is just sort of baffling."

    Oh, where to begin? I don't see why you have to dive into the murky depths of psychology. For starters, there is a composition fallacy here: there's a longstanding division between liberals and leftists who wind up supporting Democrats on easily disappointed "common front" grounds. The latter are pro-labor, pro-working class, and anti-poverty, where the former believe in a balance of countervaling forces which way too often lets them side with business against against the left. The left component of the Democratic Party consensus has never been close to the levers of power -- especially since Harry Truman became president and went on his anti-union rampage in 1946 (which led to a Republican congressional win, passage of Taft-Hartley, and the eventual destruction of the American labor movement, crippling the base of the Democratic party) which he then globalized as the "better dead than red" Cold War.

    Pick any Democrat since then and you get a guy who runs to the left to get elected, then turns around and governs from the center against the people who elected him. Kennedy and Johnson did extend the welfare state (as did Nixon), but they were cold war fanatics who wound up sunk in Vietnam, and they started the tax cut folly that wound up destroying the measure of civic equality that grew out of the New Deal and WWII. While Johnson at least liked butter with his guns, Carter was a scold and an ascetic, opening up the fashion of deregulation, and deliberately breaking the economy so workers would no longer be able to cope with inflation.

    Clinton, a sellout? Uh, NAFTA, HillaryCare, "the end of welfare as we know it," massive government cutbacks, random bombing of Iraq to set up Bush's war there, most of the critical banking deregulation laws and rules that eventually blew up in 2007-08, his continued coddling of Alan Greenspan (Matt Taibbi's nominee for "the biggest asshole in the world"), the capital gains tax cut that presaged Bush's tax cuts. It was Clinton's record, plus a healthy aversion to nepotism -- all the more so after eight years of secondhand Bush -- that made Obama look attractive. As for Obama, well, you know.

    There are at least two good reasons for leftists to sour on Democrats in power that Chait, in looking for psychological foibles, doesn't seem to be able to conceive of: one is that we tend to be issue-oriented and not power-oriented; the other is that we strongly believe that we have some right answers to major problems where both the right-wing and the compromising centrists don't have workable answers. I don't feel like arguing all the points here, but if you care about issues then you have to criticize those in power not addressing them (or making them worse) even if those people are ones you voted for. Votes are the result of a complex balancing of concerns where often you wind up choosing the lesser of two evils. But, at least if you're on the left, a vote doesn't bind you to blindly follow the leader. If you did that, well, following the leader is what fascists do.

    The thing I found most interesting about Westen's spiel is that he had something more to say than that Obama was failing because he wasn't setting out story lines that the American people wanted to hear. He went further and said that Obama should move to the left because the left's story line resonates more with the voters. The notion that there is more legitimacy and credibility moving left of Obama is what really drove Chait and Zakaria crazy here. They're happy enough with a vacillator and compromiser like Obama in large part because they see him as a force to limit the left. They know full well that during the Great Depression the left grew way beyond FDR, and that the rhetoric that Westen likes to cite (e.g., the "I welcome their hate" line that was soon converted into 70% marginal income tax rates) was the sound of FDR being dragged to the left, something they dread. And that's why they wind up praising Obama's legislative record, touting Obama as "one of the most skilful politicians in the country."

    Still, that's not very credible praise. Obama's blown about 30 points off his peak approval rating. The party he leads (and dominates) lost control of the House, lost a lot of governors and state legislatures, and more than half of its advantage in the Senate. While the economy is slightly more positive now than when he entered office, unemployment is actually up. His highly touted diplomatic initiatives for Israel and "AfPak" have failed, with both super-diplomats now gone. So all this proves that Obama's skilful? More likely it proves that Zakaria takes perverse pleasure in the Washington stalemate -- that as "a one man Davos" it somehow works to the benefit of what Sleeper aptly calls "the global casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer-bamboozling juggernaut" that's been kicking our ass for the last few decades.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Weekend Roundup: Part 1

So many links and comments this week I thought I'd split it into two posts. Consider this the International Edition, saving the usual domestic political stupidity for tomorrow:

  • Stephen M Walt: The Greatest Elected Body That Money Can Buy: OK, the real reason I'm citing this piece is the illustration that came with it: thought it'd be helpful for y'all to clarify that Joe Lieberman (US Senator, I-AETNA) and Avigdor Lieberman (Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, Moldovian immigrant, former Kach activist, founder and leader of the ultra-right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, formerly convicted for assault, recently indicted for fraud, money laundering, and witness tampering) are in fact two separate people. I'll leave it to you to figure out which is which, but you'll be hard-pressed to do so on the basis of their statements (especially if you let the Israeli speak first). The post itself was about 81 members of Congress who had nothing better to do recently than trek off to Israel to pledge their allegiance.

    American taxpayers will be pleased to know that Representative Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) has reassured Israelis that financial challenges "will not have any adverse effect on America's determination to meet its promise to Israel." Translation: we may be cutting Medicare and Social Security for U.S. citizens, but Israelis -- whose country has the 27th highest per capita income in the world -- will continue to get generous subsidies from Uncle Sucker.

  • Helena Cobban: Israel's 'J14': New Potential for Jewish-Palestinian Solidarity: I haven't written about the J14 movement in Israel, in large part because I don't know very much. Perpetual conflict has pushed Israeli politics ever further to the right, with a succession of governments making every greater concessions to the religious and/or settler movements, while undercutting the social democracy that held Israel's Jewish community together under Labor leadership. There have been periodic protests against this, but they usually get swept under the tide of conflict and nationalist propaganda. Still, it is clearly the case that the occupation is an expensive drain on those Israelis who are secular and/or who could care less about resurrecting a Jewish empire in the West Bank. So the J14 protests are about belated recognition of self-interest, but they also show Israeli politicians that occupation and perpetual conflict have a political cost. Cobban strikes me as overly optimistic that the movement might develop into a bridge between anti-occupation Jews and the Palestinians who still enjoy minimal political rights as citizens of Israel, but the latter form a political block that could be the difference between failure and success, if the J14 people are sensible enough to take advantage of it.

    Cobban also has a sensible piece on Syria, Authoritarianism, War, and Peace, that reminds us that attempting to resolve a stalemated revolt against an authoritarian regime by turning to war (especially with the interventionist cheerleading of outside powers) is a much more treacherous path than holding out for a peaceably negotiated solution. She offers South Africa as an example of the latter, something forgotten by agitators who expanded the war in Libya and want to do the same thing in Syria. I have to admit that I find myself very disturbed by the Assad regime's murderous assault on demonstrators, but I also recognize that the US has no grounds on which we can claim to be friends of the Syrian people. The US, in fact, threatened to invade and topple Syria on the model of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The US organized Lebanon's revolt against Syria. The US funded Israel's military, which to this day occupies a key chunk of Syrian territory, and which periodically bombs Syrian sites. One reason the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia succeeded peacefully while the revolts in Libya and Syria have not is that the US had a long history of working with the former while acting hostile to the latter; in the end, the former had every reason to keep their relationships with the US friendly, while the latter were given no reason. So if we do want to help the Syrian people in their hour of need, Cobban suggests how:

    But in the case of Syria, let's also not forget that the country is still one that it is in a state of war with its neighbor, Israel; and that the only way to end that state of war is through conclusion of a final peace agreement that implements all the conditions of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. If westerners in countries that have given huge support to Israel for the past 40 years truly want to help the people of Syria -- including the very numerous Syrian citizens still prevented from returning to their families' homes and farms inside the occupied Golan -- then surely they (we) should be agitating hard for Israel to conclude the kind of rules-based peace with Syria that it concluded with Egypt back in 1979. Certainly, no U.S. government aid to Israel, whether economic or military, should be given in a way that entrenches and strengthens Israel's hold on the occupied Golan.

  • Rashid Khalidi: The Freedom-Seekers America Ignores: The Palestinians, of course, making a push for United Nations recognition this September. You may recall that the UN went on record in 1947 in favor of a partitioning of Palestine into Jewish, Arab, and international sectors. David Ben-Gurion lobbied fervently to get that resolution passed, then as the Palestinian majority rejected partition, he embraced it except for details like the borders, Jerusalem, and how to treat the people (almost all Palestinians) who wound up on the wrong side of the line, while Abba Eban spent the rest of his life taunting the Palestinians for never failing to miss Israel's fleeting chances for peace, as if there were any. No one should doubt that in 1947 the UN's partition scheme was a cruel colonialist plot, but the 1947-49 war was far worse for the Palestinians: once the ethnic separation was fait accompli, as Palestinians slowly and painfully came to realize they'd never be able to return to their homes the partition plans -- first the proposed 1947 borders, then the 1949 (pre-1967) armistice borders became increasingly attractive for a state free of Israeli military rule. That still hasn't happened, both because Israel keeps extending its tentacle-like settlements into Jerusalem and the West Bank and because Israel insists that its security interests necessitate blockading even Palestinian areas like Gaza where no Israeli citizens live. Both claims are based on nothing more than the assumption that one people, Jewish Israelis, can use its superior firepower to lord over another, while the other, the Palestinians, have no leverage that can in any way bend Israel in its favor. We might as well accept that the Palestinians have lost this fight, that they are a beaten people who have nothing more to fall back on than their basic human rights, such as the right to live in a country where they can vote and have secure rights to free speech, freedom of religion, to air their grievances, to assemble, to be safe from unreasonable prosecution, etc. They could, of course, be granted those rights and integrated into Israeli society, but most Israelis have become so politically and socially and even economically cloistered that there is no chance of that happening. So at least for Gaza, there is an even simpler solution, which is to break that strip of land free from Israel and recognize it as an independent country, secure with its own air- and marine-space, able to conduct diplomacy and trade with whoever it sees fit. One can argue that the same thing should happen to much or all of the West Bank, and even for Jerusalem, although the presence of Jewish settlers with their own arms and laws greatly complicates the disentangling -- as had been the intention all along. So a path to basic human rights for Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem may take longer to sort out and implement, but there's no reason not to proceed immediately with freeing Gaza from Israeli stranglehold.

    The September proposal is more ambitious than that, which means it may succeed in the UN (which has repeatedly resolved against Israel's occupation) then be impossible to implement. As Khalidi points out, the US has become ever more hamstrung as an intermediary between Israel and the Palestinians. Meanwhile, the Netanyahu regime in Israel looks to be utterly impervious to shame, so this proposal is very likely once again to go for naught. On the other hand, if you're Palestinian, what else can you do? Violence doesn't work. Nonviolence appealing to the Israeli conscience doesn't work. Same for the American conscience, if you can even contemplate such a thing. As for the world conscience, at least there is some hope there; even if Israel vetoes and obstructs, at least it provides the hopeful connectivity of recognizing that you're still human.

  • Paul Woodward: Who Benefits From the Attacks in Israel?: On Aug. 18, seven Israelis were killed along a desert road in the far south of Israel, near the Egyptian border. Israel responded by sending a raiding party into Egypt killing several border guards, and for good measure bombed Gaza.

    One of the other immediate results of the attacks was that J14 protests scheduled to take place across Israel were cancelled. That decision was then reversed and Saturday night's main rally in Tel Aviv will take the the form of a quiet memorial march with torches and candles.

    Will this be the moment at which Israelis once again close ranks as they find solidarity through opposition to a common enemy? In other words, is the J14 movement about to fizzle out?

    If every act of terrorism can be regarded as a form of bloody political theater, it's hard to imagine that the organizers of this performance would have been oblivious about who happened to be in the audience at this time. A group of Republican members of Congress is visiting Israel this week, with another batch scheduled to arrive this weekend, Politico notes.

    No doubt many of the visiting Americans will have exceptionally harsh words for one of their colleagues upon their return to Washington. Sen. Patrick Leahy's effort to apply sanctions against Israeli special forces units accused of human rights violations, now looks particularly badly timed.

    Just as Benjamin Netanyahu felt that the 9/11 attacks were good for Israel, it's hard not to believe that he must feel that today's attacks are good for his government.

    And just in case anyone in Turkey still holds out any hope that Israel might apologize for murdering nine of its citizens just over a year ago, today's events will merely make this week's refusal even more emphatic.

    Although an Israeli spokesman claimed to have "specific evidence" to link Gaza to the attacks, nothing concrete has been offered; see Paul Woodward: Israeli Army Hasn't the Faintest Idea Who Launched the Eilat Attacks:

    Why then is Israel now bombing Gaza? Simply because it bombs Gaza every chance it gets. It bombs Gaza knowing that Washington will never object. It bombs Gaza because whenever Jews are killed the easiest form of revenge is to kill Palestinians -- even when those particular Palestinians most likely have nothing whatsoever to do with the deaths that triggered this particular cycle of violence.

    The bombing of Gaza has, in turn, killed at least 13 Palestinians. Its main effect is to endanger the cease fire Hamas has maintained while Israel continues to force its blockade of Gaza. See While Gaza Is Being Bombed by Israel, Hamas Armed Wing Decides a Unilateral Ceasefire Is Worthless. Of course, if Gaza militants do decide to shoot a few of their toy rockets over the wall, Israel will bomb further, and Netanyahu will have all the more opportunity to avoid having to deal with J14, as well as retrenching his hardcore anti-peace posture against the Palestinian independence movement in the UN.

    Also see Tony Karon: A Mideast Game of Thrones Threatenes to Provoke a New Israel-Gaza War, which recapitulates much of the above, also pointing out that the context includes an Egyptian offensive against al-Qaeda-related groups in Sinai (who might have found an incursion into Israel diverting), and the ever-present political jockeying between Israel's most murderous politicians:

    So the danger of escalation becomes more acute. On the Israeli side, too. Defense Minister Ehud Barak seemed to hint that Israel may be planning a more sustained attack on Gaza, warning on Thursday that Israel sees the territory as "a source of terror, and we will take full-force action against them."

    For a hawkish Israeli coalition government, reacting harshly to any attack on Israel is de rigeur. The question is how far Israel will press the matter. Despite his tough-talking reputation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has until now always avoided the sort of carnage in which his predecessors have becomes embroiled in Gaza and Lebanon. Barak, by contrast, was the military architect of the January 2009 invasion of Gaza, and Netanyahu's bannermen include the likes of his hawkish coalition partner and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, always ready to challenge the prime minister's manhood by implying he's insufficiently aggressive.

    But Thursday's attacks have not been politically damaging to Netanyahu. On the contrary, they have arguably eased some of the pressure on him. For one thing, the demonstrations planned for Saturday by the "J14" movement whose protests against the government on cost-of-living issues have drawn hundreds of thousands of Israelis onto the streets in recent weeks, have been canceled because of the attack from Sinai. Sure, they may be relaunched, but a shift in Israel's focus away from bread-and-cottage cheese issues to matters of national security plays to Netanyahu's strong suit.

    The Israeli leader will also, no doubt, use the renewed Gaza security crisis as evidence in support of his campaign to stop U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood. And the fact that it may have been the post-Mubarak power vacuum in Sinai that made the attack possible also reinforces the Israeli narrative that the instability created by the Arab Spring militates against Israel making any major peace agreements right now.

    These events are relatively unusual in that the sequence does look like an attack on Israel followed by retribution, whereas such sequences are usually started by Israel picking out some target they considered an opportunity, followed by a Palestinian response and further Israeli atrocities. I've written many times in the past about how to break this cycle -- one which, by the way, quite clearly doesn't work on any level. I assume that any serious effort to broker a solution will the US and Europe (perhaps the entire UN) putting up a big pile of money to help resettle refugees and rebuild things and generally grease whatever palms require it, with one account dedicated to Palestinians and another to Israelis. (In truth, Israel should be paying the Palestinians most of this, but you figure out how to get them to agree to that.) So what I propose is to make double use of the accounts both the disbursements (which will pay out over a number of years) and as an insurance fund. What happens then is that when a Palestinian blows up an Israeli bus, the victims will be paid compensation from Palestinian funds. And when an Israeli settler shoots up a Palestinian house or rips up an orchard, the victims there will be compensated from Israeli funds. (Of course, when the IDF drops a 2000 lb. bomb on an apartment building, damages for that also come out of Israeli funds.) This sets up some incentives for self-control on both sides, and it breaks the revenge cycle -- and it especially limits the ability of extremists on either side to hold the process hostage. Strangely enough, I've never seen anyone else propose this -- seems like common sense to me.

  • Matthew Yglesias: No War for Retroactive Vindication: Starts with a Max Boot quote.

    This is complete nonsense. Once upon a time, we were told that the United States should invade Iraq in order to eliminate its dangerous nuclear weapons program. It turns out that there was no such nuclear weapons program. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent, and thousands of people have been killed, maimed, and displaced in order to eliminate a nonexistent nuclear weapons program. It's a complete and total disaster, a blundering unforced error of American statecraft whose direct and indirect costs boggle the mind. But as Boot says, the appearance of things "going well" or "going badly" in Iraq sometimes seems to have enormous retroactive relevance to the wisdom or lack thereof of the initial decision to invade. Therefore, for the past five years a range of stakeholders, inside and outside the government, have repeatedly urged the American government to waste more time and resources in an effort to salvage their own reputations even though America has little concrete interest in Iraqi politics and less ability to actually shape long-term outcomes.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Sucking Sound From Texas

More Rick Perry in the Wichita Eagle this morning, an op-ed by Harold Meyerson (Washington Post) opposite a news piece titled "Heat, drought leave Texas towns going dry." Meyerson writes, in Much not to admire about Texas' economy:

Rick Perry's Texas is Ross Perot's Mexico come north. Through a range of enticements we more commonly associate with Third World nations -- low wages, no benefits, high rates of poverty, scant taxes, few regulations and generous corporate subsidies -- the state has produced its own "giant sucking sound," attracting businesses from other states to a place where workers come cheap.

Perry's calling card in the presidential race is his state's record of job creation at a time when the national economy floundered. Yes, Texas has created lots of jobs, though that's partly a reflection of the surge in oil prices, which in turn created tens of thousands of jobs in the oil and gas industries.

What Perry touts in his stump speech, however, isn't the oil boom but rather the low-tax, low-regulation, handouts-to-business climate that prevails in Texas. It's the kind of spiel that businesses hear every day from leaders of developing nations -- Mexico and, even more, China.

Consider the Texas that Perry holds up to the rest of the nation for admiration. It has the fourth-highest poverty rate of any state. It tied with Mississippi last year for the highest percentage of workers in minimum-wage jobs. It ranks first in adults without high school diplomas. Twenty-six percent of Texans have no health insurance -- the highest percentage of medically uninsured residents of any state. It leads the nation in the percentage of children who lack medical insurance.

One reason this is of interest to Wichita readers is that our still large manufacturing base is a prime target for that "giant sucking sound." We've lost jobs to both sides of the Rio Grande, depending not so much on low wages -- it's not like companies in Kansas are reknown for their generosity -- as for various special deals on taxes and kickbacks. However bad Boeing wanted to break the back of the union in Washington, what specifically lured them to South Carolina was a $900 million sweetheart deal. Same thing (on a smaller scale) happens all the time around here -- sometimes with Kansas on the giving end (especially when someone like Sam Brownback -- the only other governor who participated in Perry's recent prayer event -- have a say) but either way getting screwed: either you lose business and jobs which hurts the economy or you lose taxes which get passed on to everyone else unfortunate enough to be stuck here, either in more taxes or fewer services or both.

This competition between states for business favors leads to a race to the bottom: the states that win are the ones that lose the most. And this is exactly what Perry's notorious federalism comes down to: when the federal government regulates business there is one standard everywhere, so business has no artificial reason to locate one place vs. another; but if you hand regulation over to the states, businesses gravitate to the most corrupt and toothless states. (We have a lot of this already, which is why corporations register in Delaware, and your credit card bill comes from South Dakota.)

It should also go without saying that one nationwide regulation standard is much more efficient than 50 statewide standards. When you approach Perry levels of federalism the whole world becomes mind-bogglingly complex. Even now I'd wager that virtually none of the people moving into Texas in search of low-paying jobs have any real conception of how much living in the state will cost them over the long haul: the miserly safety net, the lousy education, the absent (and often unaffordable) health care, crime, etc.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Much Ado Over Rick Perry

When rumors started flying that Texas governor Rick Perry would join the Republican presidential campaign circus, I figured someone in the party's mysterious politburo meant to use him to split the Christian crackpot vote that was lately likely to follow Michele Bachmann so that some less toxic candidate could prevail, but I forgot that Perry isn't an apparatchik kind of guy. GOP bigwigs had tried to get rid of Perry back in 2010, convincing Kay Bailey Hutchinson to give up a safe Senate seat to get mauled by Perry in the GOP primary.

However, Perry's main accomplishment so far has been to make Bachmann look relatively sane. (The main dissenter I've seen so far is Richard Cohen, who likened Bachmann to Lady Gaga, insisting that she's finished because Perry "actually looks like a president" -- see comments by Steve Benen and Paul Krugman.) The blogs I mostly read have been full of Perry lately, mostly because of how thoroughly he reinforces the principal hard-learned of the last few years: that Republicans have gone stark raving insane.

But rather than start off with off-the-cuff, out-of-context quotes, the best place to start is Perry's 2010 book, Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America From Washington. Matthew Yglesias read the book recently, commented that it is not a typical candidate campaign book -- for one thing it has a forward written by rival presidential candidate Newt Gingrich; for another, "it's overall tone much more closely resembles that of a B-list conservative radio host looking to stir up controversy and sell books than of a cautious politician trying out poll-tested lines." So Yglesias constructed a review by picking out "the ten weirdest ideas" in the book:

  1. Social Security Is Evil
  2. Private Enterprise Blossomed Under Conscription and Wage-Price Controls
  3. Medicare Is Too Expensive But Must Never Be Cut
  4. All Bank Regulation Is Unconstitutional
  5. Consumer Financial Protection Is Unconstitutional
  6. Almost Everything is Unconstitutional
  7. Federal Education Policy Is Unconstitutional
  8. Al Gore Is Part of a Conspiracy To Deny The Existence Of Global Cooling
  9. Not Only Is Everything Unconstitutional, Activist Judges Are A Problem
  10. The Civil War Was Caused By Slaveowners Trampling On Northern States' Rights

I don't really get why Perry cares so much about the Constitution given that it wasn't very long ago when he wanted Texas to secede to get away from the damn thing, but a lot of right-wing jargon, not to mention fundamentalist Christian-speak, is code designed only to be picked up by fellow believers. Most people would try to argue policies on their merits -- should banks be regulated or not? -- rather than declaring something can't even be considered because of an exclusion that no one has noticed in 220 years.

In looking for the book review piece, I scrounged through Think Progress's Rick Perry tag list. The titles themselves give you a fair idea. (Most recent first, just because that's the way I'm finding them.)

That's enough for now, even though it only takes us back to August 15, three days ago. The least you can say is that Perry sure makes up for losing Tim Pawlenty.

By the way, I could just as well have compiled this from many other sources.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Music Week

Music: Current count 18547 [18506] rated (+41), 861 [873] unrated (-12). Huge rated count this week, and for once most of it isn't Rhapsody. Fact is I haven't found much to look up there, and browsing through the new releases is even worse. So I hit the jazz queue. Didn't find anything all that notable, but moved some product and opened up some space. Also did quite a bit of blogging last week. Can't say that either was especially productive, but it was a much more active week. Cooler outside, too.

Jazz Prospecting (JCG #28, Part 2)

Big rated week for me: 41 records. Thirty is a heavy week for me, and when I top that by much it's usually because I'm skimming through Rhapsody. Did a bit of that, but only have seven records in the Streamnotes file, so most of the count came from the jazz queue and is piled up below. Thought I'd try sorting the post alphabetically this time, instead of just listing the records in the order I got to them. One reason is that I started the week off with two 3-stars and an A-, two in brackets (meaning I'm not as sure as I'd like so plan on revisiting those before I write them up). Flipping the order around spreads that clump out, and may make it easie to find things.

No news on when Jazz CG (27) will run. I'll nag the editor again, and plug onward.

Eliane Amherd: Now and From Now On (2011, ELI): Guitarist-singer-songwriter, from Switzerland, based in New York. First album. Good voice. Nice beat. Didn't follow the songs, but the lyrics are in the booklet -- even the one non-original, from Tom Waits. B+(*)

ArtsWest: The Vocal Jazz Collective: Redefition (2009 [2010], OA2): ArtsWest is some kind of organization in Seattle: produces events, runs a theater company and an art gallery, offers education although I'm not sure you can call it a school, is "a community center and economic attractor." Jeff Baker, who has a few vocal jazz albums of his own, is Director of Vocal Music, and the Vocal Jazz Collective is a set of vocalists including 13-year-old Andrew Coba, who doesn't have a lead here but is somewhere in the choir -- not clear that the others are much older. The band is made up of Seattle all-stars including Brent Jensen on sax and Thomas Marriott on trumpet, arranged by pianist Justin Nielsen. Singers Camille Avery, LeAnne Robinson, Georgia Sedlack, Cari Stevens, Fara Sumbureru, Karmen Wolf, Harris Long, and Mary Thompson get one or two standards each. Good band -- the instrumental breaks are all expert. None of the singers are especially memorable, but overall this is surprisingly pleasant. B

Daniel Bennett Group: Peace & Stability Among Bears (2010 [2011], Bennett Alliance): Plays alto sax, flute, clarinet. B. 1979 in Rochester, NY; studied at Roberts Wesleyan in Rochester, then at New England Conservatory in Boston (ah, finally found the inevitable George Garzone reference). Has two previous bear-themed albums on his website, all attributed to the Group, which started as a trio then added a bassist. Current lineup: Chris Hersch (guitar), Jason Davis (bass), Rick Landwehr (drums). He calls this "folk jazz" and cites Steve Reich's minimalism as an influence. Repetitive patterns slide around the guitar, with even the alto sax pitched about as high as it can go. B+(***)

Chris Dingman: Waking Dreams (2011, Between Worlds Music): Vibraphonist, from San Jose, CA; studied at Wesleyan, which put him in Anthony Braxton's orbit, but closer to home under Jay Hoggard. Based in New York. Has side credits since 2004 with Steve Lehman, Harris Eisenstadt, Ambrose Akinmusire. First album, with Akinmusire on trumpet, Loren Stillman on sax, Fabian Almazan on piano, plus bass, drums, and occasional guests. Open textures, lots of space. B+(*) [advance]

Eliane Elias: Light My Fire (2010 [2011], Concord): Pianist, b. 1960 in Brazil, AMG lists 23 albums since 1986. Not sure when she started singing -- certainly by 1997's Sings Jobim, which I found utterly dreamy. Her voice is in the affectless Astrud Gilberto tradition, a bit more accommodating and gracious. While I routinely complain about American singers and their "obligatory Jobim" picks, she nails her turf down -- OK, no Jobim here, but Gilberto Gil joins in for three cuts, and her guitar and percussion picks are near perfect. The songs in English, including "My Cherie Amour" and the slowed down title cut, are impeccably cool, and she scats her way through "Take Five" with Randy Brecker adding a bit of highlight. I will complain about the photography: not that she's getting too old for cheesecake, but the lighting makes her look strangely pale and purple. [A-]

The Flail: Live at Smalls (2010 [2011], Smalls Live): New York quintet: Dan Blankinship (trumpet), Stephan Moutot (tenor sax), Brian Marsella (piano), Reid Taylor (bass), Matt Zebroski (drums). Second album (I think: AMG lists this one, CDBaby has another one; their own website is utterly useless -- can't believe people pay money for design like that). Figure post-hard bop, but the horns and piano can pick up and run away from the pack. Runs 71 minutes, and never lets up. B+(**)

Four: On a Warm Summer's Evenin' (2010, Jazz Hang): Idaho group, nominally a saxophone quartet with Mark Watkins (soprano, alto), Brent Jensen (alto), Sandon Mayhew (tenor, and Jon Gudmundson (baritone). I'm familiar with Jensen, who has several good records on Origin. Everyone else is new to me, especially the group's de facto leader, Watkins, who wrote or arranged everything (9 originals, 3 covers, one by Coltrane, one more that might as well be -- "Chim Chim Cheree" -- and "My Funny Valentine"). Watkins teaches at BYU-Idaho, another new one on me: the former Ricks College in Rexburg, ID, an LDS-owned institution with nearly 15,000 students (more than the population of Rexburg as recently as 1990 -- Salon called it "the reddest place in America" after Bush got 93% of the vote in 2004). The group is supplemented by the BYU-Idaho Faculty Jazz Ensemble (rhythm section), including guitarist Corey Christiansen, and a much larger Faculty and Alumni band/orchestra/jazz ensemble, which gives Watkins a lot to arrange. This has spots that get cluttered, but for the most part everyone is well-behaved and it all grows into a warm, luxurious flow. B+(*)

Curtis Fuller: The Story of Cathy & Me (2011, Challenge): Trombonist, b. 1934 in Detroit, came up in hard bop bands -- Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet -- as well as credits with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Clark, Bud Powell, Cannonball and Nate Adderley, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Smith, Joe Henderson, Dizzy Gillespie, lots of guys who are long dead. Cathy was Fuller's wife, the former Catherine Rose Driscoll, who also died in 2010. No idea when they met and married, a detail that slipped through the cracks of an otherwise generous booklet. The album is broken up into three sections separated by spoken word "interludes." Two vocals by Tia Michelle Rouse also chop up the flow, which traces a grand arc from upbeat youth to solemn age. B+(**)

Giacomo Gates: The Revolution Will Be Jazz: The Songs of Gil Scott-Heron (2010-11 [2011], Savant): Singer, says somewhere he was 40 in 1990, so figure b. 1950; drove trucks, worked on the Alaska Pipeline, tried singing in Fairbanks bars but didn't get very far; moved to Connecticut, cut a record in 1995, four more since. Attracted to Jon Hendricks and vocalese, also a source of Scott-Heron's music. (Let me interject that I've long had a kneejerk reaction to the flamboyant hipsterism of vocalese, and that turned me off from Scott-Heron's albums, regardless of how appealing the politics were.) Gates thought about doing a Scott-Heron albums back in the early 1990s, but didn't get going on it until Scott-Heron returned after a 13 year hiatus with I'm New Here last year. Then Scott-Heron died at 62 on May 27 this year, a few weeks before this arrived in the mail. Avoids the most overtly political tracts in favor of the jazz legacy, sentimentalizes "New York City," keeps the hopes and prayers alive, but also the "Gun" dilemma. A deeper, more measured singer, who can scat but doesn't have to. Limits the horns to two cuts, using Claire Daly on baritone once and on flute for "Winter in America," where it belongs. B+(***)

Randy Halberstadt: Flash Point (2010, Origin): Pianist, b. 1953 in New York, based in Seattle, teaches at Cornish College of the Arts; has a book, Metaphors for the Musician: Perspectives From a Jazz Pianist, and four albums since 1991. Quintet with Thomas Marriott (trumpet), Mark Taylor (alto sax), Jeff Johnson (bass), and Mark Ivester (drums). Halberstadt wrote 6 of 9 pieces, covering Sam Rivers ("Beatrice"), Miles Davis ("Solar"), and "On Green Dolphin Street." Postbop. Impressed more by the piano than by the horns, which probably help to broaden and stabilize the record but are never what's interesting. B+(*)

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: Race Riot Suite (2011, Royal Potato Family): Tulsa group, recorded in Tulsa, so you know what race riot they're talking about -- if not, see here: took place in 1921, the only time I'm aware of where residential neighborhoods in the US were bombed by aircraft. Group has been around since the late 1990s, with close to a dozen records. Chris Combs (lap steel, guitar) wrote and arranged all of this, except for group improvs titled prayers. Group includes: Brian Haas (piano), Jeff Harshbarger (bass), and John Raymer (drums), and this time they're augmented by five horn players, including Peter Apfelbaum (baritone sax) and Steven Bernstein (trumpet). Haas goes all the way back to the beginning; Raymer joined in 2007, Combs joining in 2008, Harshbarger 2010. No words, so you're on your own figuring out why the upbeat "Black Wall Street" segues into a gloomy piece like "The Burning." The horns tend to drown out the core band, and while what they do is often interesting, it doesn't quite stand on its own. B+(*)

Daniel Jamieson's Danjam Orchestra: Sudden Appearance (2010 [2011], OA2): Big band -- 5 woodwinds, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, piano, bass, drums, voice (Jihne Kim) on 3 of 8 cuts, percussion on 2. Jamieson, originally from Toronto but based in New York, composed and conducted. First album, not many names I recognize in the orchestra. Jim McNeely, who knows more than a little about big bands, co-produced. Nothing very surprising here, but very solid as postbop big band goes. B+(**)

AJ Kluth's Aldric: Anvils and Broken Bells (2010 [2011], OA2): Tenor saxophonist, based in Chicago. Second album. Group is electric -- electric guitar ("many buttons & knobs"), electric bass, with both Kluth and trumpeter James Davis credited with effects. Fusion, I suppose, but not a throwback to the 1970s jazz fusion stuff (though maybe Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath): dense sheets of sound, heavy on the heavy, occasional fast breaks. B+(*)

Lee Konitz: Insight (1989-95 [2011], Jazzwerkstatt): Front cover also has, in much smaller type, name of Frank Wunsch, the pianist who duets with Konitz on 6 of 9 tracks. Spine only has Konitz's name, which in the algebra of parsing album covers carries a bit more weight. Plus the album starts off with three solo cuts, and Wunsch doesn't make much of an impression even when he plays. Konitz, on the other hand, does. Like most solo/duo sax records, he stays within the speed limit, but his tone is uncommonly fine and the improvs are rigorously intelligent. Pieced together from five sessions scattered over six years. Includes some soprano sax as well as the usual alto. B+(***)

Adia Ledbetter: Take 2: Rendezvous With Yesterdays (2010 [2011], Jazzijua): Singer, from Durham, NC, based in New York. Second album, mostly standards but she writes some around the edges, and claims two songs whole. I hear a touch of Billie Holiday on "Darn That Dream" but later on it's gone. At one point breaks into a soliloquy on how wonderful her future is that starts with "Obama is president, and the Steelers just won the Super Bowl" -- caught me off guard as I was writing a long post at the time on how poorly Obama has performed as president. She does have a bright future, or would if the country did. B+(*)

Mike LeDonne: Keep the Faith (2011, Savant): Organ player, one of the better ones around, leading an all-star group -- Eric Alexander (tenor sax), Peter Bernstein (guitar), Joe Farnsworth (drums) -- all with a lot of practice doing this sort of thing. Very hot, of course, but they've managed to burn the essence out of what used to be called soul jazz. When people would talk about, oh, Jack McDuff or Charles Earland or Groove Holmes "burnin'" what they meant was more like smoldering than flames jumping this way and that. B+(*)

Bob Mamet Trio: Impromptu (2010, Counterpoint): Pianist, cut three albums 1994-97 which gave him something of a rep for crossover or pop jazz (AMG: "pop-jazz with a brain"). This is his first album since, a straight acoustic piano trio with Darek Oles[kiewicz] on bass and Joe La Barbera on drums, all original pieces. Bright, lively, accessible without falling into any of the usual pop jazz ruts. B+(**)

Susie Meissner: I'm Confessin' (2010 [2011], Lydian Jazz): Standards singer, grew up in Buffalo, grandmother played stride piano which led her to Ellington, Gershwin, Porter (all represented here, Duke twice). Second album. Nice voice, great songs, band swings, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon earns his special guest status on his four tracks. B+(*)

Pat Metheny: What's It All About (2011, Nonesuch): Solo guitar, covering songs mostly from the 1960s and 1970s, probably things that strike a nostalgic note to a kid from Missouri born in 1954, but as one born in 1950 in Kansas I have to say that several are songs I'd just as soon never hear again. He does do some interesting things with them -- only "Cherish" resists the treatment. B+(*)

Nicole Mitchell: Awakening (2011, Delmark): Flute player, b. 1967 in Syracuse, NY; grew up in California; moved to Chicago in 1990 and got involved in AACM, becoming co-president in 2006. Tenth album since 2001. Has won Rising Star Flute in the Downbeat critics poll several times, and won outright this year, something she'll probably do regularly over the next decade. Most famous flute players are saxophonists slumming -- Frank Wess and James Moody have dominated this category, but Moody died and Wess is nearly 90. Young flautists mostly come up with a rigorous classical background, but Mitchell has her own sound and dynamics, probably drawing on Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill. Still, flute doesn't do much for me, so while she glides over the rhythm I'm more impressed by the band: Jeff Parker on guitar, Harrison Bankhead on bass, and Avreeayl Ra on drums. B+(**)

Alphonse Mouzon: Angel Face (2011, Tenacious): Drummer, b. 1948 in Charleston, SC; emerged as fusion was picking up steam, playing with Weather Report early on, Larry Coryell's Eleventh House, cutting his own albums for Blue Note in the early 1970s. As things cooled down, launched his own label, Tenacious Records, in 1981, and has at least 14 records since. Never paid much attention to him, so the most striking thing here is the surfeit of riches. He's basically running a quintet here, but at piano he alternates between Cedar Walton and Kenny Barron; at bass Christian McBride and Darek Oleskiewicz; his main trumpet players are Arturo Sandoval and Wallace Roney (Shonzo Ohno gets one cut); the tenor sax slot is shared by Ernie Watts, Don Menza, and Bob Mintzer, with Antoine Roney and Charles Owens getting one cut each. These are guys who can break out and do something interesting, and sometimes they do, but mostly they burnish the leader's painless, pleasant funk groove. B+(*)

Arturo O'Farrill & the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra: 40 Acres and a Burro (2010 [2011], Zoho): Pianist, took over his father's big band (Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra) in 1995. AMG credits him with seven albums since 1999, missing two ALJO discs, and I'm not sure what else. This combines O'Farrill's quintet, the ALJO big band, and a raft of guests -- Paquito D'Rivera, David Bixler, and Heather Martin Bixler get pics on the back cover. Three O'Farrill originals, including "A Wise Latina" and the title track. Grossly cluttered, except for rare moments when the rhythm breaks through, as in the pieces by Pixinguinha and Astor Piazzolla -- the latter even puts the horns to good use. B-

Oregon: In Stride (2010, CAM Jazz): Quartet, founded in 1970 as some sort of world-jazz fusion band. The most distinctive member, at least up to his death in 1984, was Collin Walcott, who played sitar, percussion, all sorts of things. The other three remain to this day: Paul McCandless (oboe, English horn, various saxes and clarinets), Ralph Towner (guitar), and Glen Moore (bass). The group disbanded after Walcott's death; the other three regrouping in 1987 with Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu, and now carry on with drummer Mark Walker. This is their 28th album. I've only heard a few at both ends of their career. Horns trend toward the ethereal, guitar toward the sublime, pulse and beat move along, with nothing especially standing out. B+(**)

Dida Pelled: Plays and Sings (2010 [2011], Red): Singer-guitarist, from Israel, based in New York, first album, recorded in Brooklyn but released on an Italian label associated with producer (trumpet player on two cuts) Fabio Morgera. With Tal Ronen on bass, Gregory Hutchinson on drums, and Roy Hargrove playing trumpet on three tracks. Standards, at least if you count Wes Montgomery, Horace Silver, and "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" (a Frankie Valli song I definitely count). Engagingly ordinary voice, holds her own on a couple of long guitar solos. B+(**)

Augusto Pirodda: No Comment (2009 [2011], Jazzwerkstatt): Pianist, b. 1971 in Cagliari (Sardinia, Italy); studied in Netherlands, now based in Brussels. Has a couple previous albums -- one solo, also a duo with Michal Vanoucek. Drew the A-Team for this trio: Gary Peacock on bass, Paul Motian on drums. Quiet, slow, so subtle I damn near missed it but the bass kept sneaking around to grab me. [B+(***)]

Rufus Reid & Out Front: Hues of a Different Blue (2010 [2011], Motéma): Bassist, prominent enough that he gets his name as the leader of a piano trio -- the pianist in question is Steve Allee, who has a few records under his own name, as does Brazilian drumer Duduka Da Fonseca. Allee is sharp here, and Reid gets in some solos. He's also lined up guests to mix it up on five tracks (if you believe the credits, which I don't): various mixes of Toninho Horta (guitar), Freddie Hendrix (trumpet), JD Allen (tenor sax), and Bobby Watson (credited with tenor sax, but must be alto; Watson also appears uncounted on "These Foolish Things": a highlight). B+(*)

Dave Valentin: Pure Imagination (2011, High Note): Flute player, b. 1954 in Chelmsford, England; has a couple dozen albums since 1979, at least lately relying heavily on Latin rhythms which set his flute off nicely. He has a group here that can do that -- Bill O'Connell (piano), Ruben Rodriguez (bass), Robby Ameen (drums), and especially Richie Flores (percussion) -- and the opener "Smile" does just that. Afterwards it's hit and miss. B

Alex Vittum: Prism (2010 [2011], Prefecture): Percussionist, based in San Francisco, half of the duo Tide Tables. Subtitled "solo works for electro-acoustic percussion." Describes Prism as "a signal processing software environment I developed in Max/MSP" to use with his drum kit. Interesting, the drumming more so than the electronics. Not much packaging for my copy: just a plastic sleeve and an insert. B+(*)

Kenny Wheeler: One of Many (2006 [2011], CAM Jazz): With John Taylor and Steve Swallow, as the front cover notes, senior citizens of the avant-garde, taking it easy but not making it too easy. Wheeler plays flugelhorn the whole way, as has been his habit lately. Past 80 now, but this was done a few years back. B+(***)

No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.

Unpacking: Found in the mail over the last week:

  • Bob Belden: Miles Español: New Sketches of Spain (Entertainment One, 2CD): advance, Sept. 27
  • George Benson: Guitar Man (Concord): advance, Oct. 4
  • Ron Carter: Ron Carter's Great Big Band (Sunnyside): Sept. 13
  • Ken Fowser/Behn Gillece: Duotone (Posi-Tone)
  • Donald Harrison: This Is Jazz: Live at the Blue Note (Half Note)
  • Francisco Mela & Cuban Safari: Tree of Life (Half Note)
  • Sean Nowell: Stockholm Swingin' (Posi-Tone)
  • Greg Reitan: Daybreak (Sunnyside): Sept. 13
  • Daniel Rosenthal: Lines (American Melody)
  • Samo Salamon Trio: Almost Almond (Sanje)
  • Matt Slocum: After the Storm (Chandra)
  • Marcus Strickland: Triumph of the Heavy: Volume 1 & 2 (Strick Muzik, 2CD): Sept. 27
  • Kenny Werner with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra: Institute of Higher Learning (Half Note)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Weekend Roundup

A few more scattered links, having shot most of my lode earlier in the week, both in a midweek dump and in other posts like yesterday's Michele Bachmann special and Drew Westen back on Wednesday:

  • Steve Benen: Pawlenty, Facing Dwindling Odds, Quits Race: Well, we didn't have much opportunity to talk about Tim Pawlenty, but then we didn't have much need to. He was much hyped for VP back in 2008, presumably on McCain's short list before he lost out to Sarah Palin. This year he was squished like a bug by his fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann, and deservedly so. Someone should go back and write up Pawlenty's campaign, not so much for historical lessons as sheer farce: no one -- not Bachmann nor even Palin -- has said as many patently stupid things in the race so far, nor managed to make himself look more like a complete bumbling idiot. I've only picked up a few of these items, but if you're nostalgic see:

    I'm sure there's much more: in a recent post I didn't grab, Krugman quipped that Matt Yglesias follows Pawlenty so we don't have to, and I didn't grab anything from Yglesias.

    Benen reminds us that back in spring Jon Chait argued that Pawlenty "should probably be considered the frontrunner," which accords with the general level of insight I saw on Charlie Rose last week when Chait and Fareed Zakaria ganged up on Drew Westen for doubting Obama's magnificent legislative record.

  • David Harvey: Feral Capitalism Hits the Streets: One music writer I correspond with went apeshit over the recent riots in Britain, concluding that the rioters, "are ill-educated (not their fault), have poor work ethics and poor morals!" That's a rant I've read hundreds of times before, and only rarely to describe rioters and looters since the mere status of being poor will do. I don't know much about the riots, nor about the work ethics and morals of Britain's underclass, but I do know that when such violence erupts there are deeper problems being ignored.

    There will of course be the usual hysterical debate between those prone to view the riots as a matter of pure, unbridled and inexcusable criminality, and those anxious to contextualize events against a background of bad policing; continuing racism and unjustified persecution of youths and minorities; mass unemployment of the young; burgeoning social deprivation; and a mindless politics of austerity that has nothing to do with economics and everything to do with the perpetuation and consolidation of personal wealth and power. Some may even get around to condemning the meaningless and alienating qualities of so many jobs and so much of daily life in the midst of immense but unevenly distributed potentiality for human flourishing.

    If we are lucky, we will have commissions and reports to say all over again what was said of Brixton and Toxteth in the Thatcher years. I say 'lucky' because the feral instincts of the current Prime Minister seem more attuned to turn on the water cannons, to call in the tear gas brigade and use the rubber bullets while pontificating unctuously about the loss of moral compass, the decline of civility and the sad deterioration of family values and discipline among errant youths.

    But the problem is that we live in a society where capitalism itself has become rampantly feral. Feral politicians cheat on their expenses, feral bankers plunder the public purse for all its worth, CEOs, hedge fund operators and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth, telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone's bills, shopkeepers price gouge, and, at the drop of a hat swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world.

    A political economy of mass dispossession, of predatory practices to the point of daylight robbery, particularly of the poor and the vulnerable, the unsophisticated and the legally unprotected, has become the order of the day.

  • This is certainly right, but doesn't get to the detail of why this, why now. So also see: Alexander Cockburn: Riots and the Underclass:

    The riots in London last week started in Tottenham in an area with the highest unemployment in London, in response to the police shooting a young black man, in a country where black people are 26 times more likely to stopped and searched by the cops than whites. Stop-and-searches are allowed under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, introduced to deal with football hooligans. It allows police to search anyone in a designated area without specific grounds for suspicion. Use of Section 60 has risen more than 300 per cent between 2005 and last year. In 1997/98 there were 7,970 stop-and-searches, increasing to 53,250 in 2007/08 and 149,955 in 2008/09. Between 2005/06 and 2008/09 the number of Section 60 searches of black people rose by more than 650 per cent. [ . . . ]

    Back in 1981, I interviewed Howe in his Race and Class office after the Brixton and Toxteth riots. Overweening police power and state racism were fuelling unofficial racism, with innumerable murderous attacks on blacks in a Britain ravaged by Margaret Thatcher's economic policies. At the start of April, 1981, the police launched Operation Swamp 81 to combat street crime. More than 1,000 people were stopped and questioned in the first four days. The uprising in Brixton began on April 9 and lasted through April 11. There were 4,000 police in the area and 286 people arrested. By the weekend of July 10-12 riots were taking place in 30 towns and cities -- black and white youths together and in some case white youths alone.

    Cockburn then lets his mind wander to America and its "nearly 40-year detour into a gulag Republic, with 25 percent of the world's prisoners."

    Those endless wars on crime and drugs -- a staple of 90 percent of America's politicians these last thirty years -- have engendered not merely 2.3 million prisoners but a vindictive hysteria that pulses on the threshold of homicide in the bosoms of many of our uniformed law enforcers. Time and again, one hears stories attesting to the fact that they are ready, at a moment's notice or a slender pretext, to blow someone away, beat him to a pulp, throw him in the slammer, sew him up with police perjuries and snitch-driven charges, and try to toss him in a dungeon for a quarter-century or more.

    Cockburn urges Britain not to follow the US route, but the government and citizens like my correspondent are seething and champing at the bit. But that's the wrong response. Such events should be taken as a wake up call, nagging us to ask whether government is serving justice, whether we're doing what we can to make the modern world more livable. Locking up rioters and looters may be called for, and some people will always be criminals, but riots burn themselves out, accomplishing nothing other than to seed future riots. The only thing that will break this cycle is to recommit government to serving the people.

  • Ray McGovern: They Died in Vain:

    Many of those preaching at American church services Sunday extolled as "heroes" the 30 American and 8 Afghan troops killed Saturday west of Kabul, when a helicopter on a night mission crashed, apparently after taking fire from Taliban forces. This week, the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM) can be expected to beat a steady drumbeat of "they shall not have died in vain."

    But they did. I know it is a hard truth, but they did die in vain.

    Actually, the first soldier to die not in vain in Afghanistan will be the one that breaks the president's will to keep wasting American lives in a war that never should have been started, that has for ten long years been fought in a haze of confusion, both over our aims and over our wretched understanding of the region and its people. Meanwhile they keep piling up, a testament to the vanity of politicians and generals and media who can't admit to error on such a gross scale.

  • Jonathan Zasloff: David Ben-Gurion Spins in His Grave: Actually, this is only one of many reasons why Ben-Gurion should be upset about what's going on in the state he all but single-mindedly created, but skeptics can also trace many of those problems to his compromises of principle for tactical advantage -- e.g., his decision give the rabbis a wedge of state control, his decision not to negotiate peace agreements following the 1949 armistices, or his decision not to fight against the 1967 land grabs (especially in Jerusalem) that he had warned against only weeks earlier. One might doubt, for instance, that Ben-Gurion really preferred Israel to be accepted as a normal nation over an occupation that would turn Israel into a pariah state, but in his own mind in the 1940s, at least before he got a taste for war, I think he did. But there can be no doubt that he would be appalled by the neglect and collapse of Israel's socialism (if only for Jews) -- that was, after all, the bedrock upon which he built the whole nation. Zasloff starts with a quote noting that "in Israel it's unusual for socioeconomic issues to take priority over political-security issues."

    Here, in three sentences, is the explanation for the collapse of Israel's Labor Party. Founded by David Ben-Gurion as Mapai, an acronym for "Israel Worker's Party," it built the social democratic foundations of the country's welfare state. But it now lacks any coherent philosophy. A few years ago, Ehud Barak followed his election as party head by buying a multimillion dollar condo in Tel Aviv.

    Why do tends of thousands of working-class Mizrahi and Russian Jews vote Likud or Shas? Because Labor gives them nothing to vote for. Now, when thousands march for affordable housing, what passes for the Israeli "left" has nothing to say. Ben-Gurion and the rest Israel's founders would be appalled.

    One thing I'm reminded of is that Golda Meir was quite explicit that she considered the founder of Likud to be nothing less than a Fascist. The fact is that the right has used security issues to undermine the social democracy, turning Israel into a haven for what David Harvey above calls feral capitalism, and Labor has been so preoccupied with one-upping the right on security they've surrendered everything else. Kind of like the Cold War Republicans and Democrats over here -- the warmongering consensus that destroyed the labor movement and is still threatening to wipe out the last vestiges of Roosevelt's New Deal: something Roosevelt himself endangered by becoming all to fond of his glorious war.

Expert Comments

One from Robert Christgau:

As I've said dozens of times, I am not interested in boxes as boxes and feel no obligation to spend the days if not weeks it would take to determine if the latest industry profit-taker has an integrity of its own (something almost no one obliged to review one of these monsters for publication does, but I expect of myself). There are exceptions, but these exceptions reflect my own personal and professional druthers and needs. Nor am I the kind of audiophile interested in comparing mastering jobs except under extreme circumstances. And by the way, I almost never get a box for free anymore. I can request them when I have a need, and sometimes therefore get them. But my basic advice about boxes is one I as a consumer generally follow. Skip them.

I posted something on jazz (re Joe Yanosik) and boxes:

Note for Joe: Sure, Miles Davis cut some cool records for Prestige, especially at the end when he knocked off four LPs in two days to wrangle his way out of his contract (Cookin', Relaxin', etc., although Walkin' was earlier). But I've long thought that the one he held out for Columbia, 'Round About Midnight, was his best with that band. (By the way, the 2-CD Legacy Edition adds nothing of note.) Another related record, even cooler, you should hear is Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (i.e., Miles Davis's rhythm section).

As for boxes, I agree with most of what Bob said -- especially my disinterest in judging remaster quality. I've also found that publicists have gotten extremely (and irrationally) tight with them. (It's much easier to get 4 CDs from most companies than one 4-CD box, even though the gross margin on the latter has to be higher.) At the height of my Recycled Goods column I wanted to do an all-boxes column but just couldn't get the material. Even now I almost never get jazz boxes, even when I specifically ask for them.

More Joe:


I had heard that the Prestige stuff was knocked off quick but I never hold that against an artist.

Everything Prestige did in the 1950s was knocked off super-quick -- almost always single takes of head arrangements with whoever happened to be in town at the time. Some guys like Gene Ammons were real good at that, but if he had an off day (and he had more than his share) they'd release that too. (Also Arnett Cobb: his Party Time has been stuck in my bedtime rotation for months now, along with another Prestige disc, Buck and Buddy Blow the Blues.) John Coltrane and Jackie McLean are two guys who got a lot better when they left Prestige. (Miles Davis, too, of course.) Only guy I can think of who peaked there was Sonny Rollins, but in many ways he just found his plateau.

More Joe, asking what about Monk?

Sure, Monk's Prestiges are real good: probably better on average than his Riversides, but the latter are what he's most revered for (at least by most jazz critics), so it can be argued that he got better when he moved on -- just wasn't as obvious example for me as Coltrane and McLean. Even the latter cut good records for Prestige -- just nothing like Giant Steps or New Soil.

A quick look at my database shows 58 A- or better Prestige albums, and there are probably more hidden among the OJCs -- a pretty remarkable record. Coleman Hawkins did very well there. Budd Johnson cut two records, both real good. Lucky Thompson had one. Lee Konitz had a great one real early (Subconscious-Lee). Booker Ervin had a terrific run late in the label's history (The Space Book, etc.). Eric Dolphy did good work there (but his best/most famous record was the one on Blue Note). Lockjaw Davis did a lot of good work; Very Saxy is probably the ultimate Prestige album. So there are lots of good Prestige albums, but they were all done quick and dirty, and unless an artist had a strong idea going in (as Monk did, and Rollins, Konitz, Steve Lacy, and a few others) they just did what came naturally. Given talent like Hawkins, or even Lockjaw, that tended to work out fine.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Michele Bachmann

Did all that Tea Party horseshit even happen? Or was it just a fake media event? I've read two books on the subject -- Kate Zernike: Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America (2010, Times Books), and Jill Lepore: The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History -- the former claiming it's a big deal and the latter contrasting myths and historical facts. Someone will no doubt do something more systematic in the near future, but unless they get into who paid for what and why you won't really have much. On the other hand, one thing you do have is Michele Bachmann, who rose from backbench Republican to media star almost wholly on her claim to be the Tea Party's political voice. Which is one reason why the Tea Party was nothing more than mass hallucination: if not, someone would come forth to discredit her.

Bachmann's presidential campaign is an improbable one, but she's already all but knocked out her two closest competitors: her fellow (and senior) Minnesota Republican, Tim Pawlenty, who looks confused and pathetic trying to outflank her on the right; meanwhile, although early on she was dubbed "Sarah Palin's stunt double," she stole that role so completely Palin rarely bothers even to phone it in.

Let's start with: Mat Taibbi: Michele Bachmann's Holy War.

Bachmann is a religious zealot whose brain is a raging electrical storm of divine visions and paranoid delusions. She believes that the Chinese are plotting to replace the dollar bill, that light bulbs are killing our dogs and cats, and that God personally chose her to become both an IRS attorney who would spend years hounding taxpayers and a raging anti-tax Tea Party crusader against big government. She kicked off her unofficial presidential campaign in New Hampshire, by mistakenly declaring it the birthplace of the American Revolution. "It's your state that fired the shot that was heard around the world!" she gushed. "You are the state of Lexington and Concord, you started the battle for liberty right here in your backyard." [ . . . ]

Bachmann's story, to hear her tell it, is about a suburban homemaker who is chosen by God to become a politician who will restore faith and family values to public life and do battle with secular humanism. But by the time you've finished reviewing her record of lies and embellishments and contradictions, you'll have no idea if she actually believes in her own divine inspiration, or whether it's a big con job.

Taibbi flips through her biography: born Michele Amble in Waterloo, IA, but grew up in Anoka, MN. In her teens, parents divorced; mother remarried, expanding her family to nine step-siblings. Found Jesus at 16. Attended Winona State University, where she "met a doltish, like-minded believer named Marcus Bachmann. After college, they moved to Oklahoma, "where Michele entered one of the most ridiculous learning institutions in the Western Hemisphere, a sort of highway rest area with legal accreditation called the O.W. Coburn School of Law":

Michele was a member of its inaugural class in 1979.

Originally a division of Oral Roberts University, this august academy, dedicated to the teaching of "the law from a biblical worldview," has gone through no fewer than three names -- including the Christian Broadcasting Network School of Law. Those familiar with the darker chapters in George W. Bush's presidency might recognize the school's current name, the Regent University School of Law. Yes, this was the tiny educational outhouse that, despite being the 136th-ranked law school in the country, where 60 percent of graduates flunked the bar, produced a flood of entrants into the Bush Justice Department.

Regent was unabashed in its desire that its graduates enter government and become "change agents" who would help bring the law more in line with "eternal principles of justice," i.e., biblical morality. To that end, Bachmann was mentored by a crackpot Christian extremist professor named John Eidsmoe, a frequent contributor to John Birch Society publications who once opined that he could imagine Jesus carrying an M16 and who spent considerable space in one of his books musing about the feasibility of criminalizing blasphemy. [ . . . ]

When Bachmann finished her studies in Oklahoma, Marcus instructed her to do her postgraduate work in tax law -- a command Michele took as divinely ordained. She would later profess to complete surprise at God's choice for her field of study. "Tax law? I hate taxes," she said. "Why should I go and do something like that?" Still, she sucked it up and did as she was told. "The Lord says: Be submissive, wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands."

They then moved to Stillwater, MN, "where they raised their five children and took in 23 foster kids." She worked for the IRS, then quit in 1993, edging into politics: "she didn't become a major player in Stillwater until she joined a group of fellow Christian activists to form New Heights, one of the first charter schools in America."

But before long, parents began to complain that Bachmann and her cronies were trying to bombard the students with Christian dogma -- advocating the inclusion of something called the "12 Biblical Principles" into the curriculum, pushing the teaching of creationism and banning the showing of the Disney movie Aladdin because it promoted witchcraft.

"One member of Michele's entourage talked about how he had visions, and that God spoke to him directly," recalled Denise Stephens, a parent who was opposed to the religious curriculum at New Heights. "He told us that as Christians we had to lay our lives down for it. I remember getting in the car with my husband afterward and telling him, 'This is a cult.'"

Under pressure from parents, Bachmann resigned from New Heights. But the experience left her with a hang-up about the role of the state in public education. She was soon mobilizing against an educational-standards program called Profile of Learning, an early precursor to No Child Left Behind. Under the program, state educators and local businesses teamed up to craft a curriculum that would help young people prepare for the work force -- but Bachmann saw through their devious scheme. "She thought it was a socialist plot to turn our children into little worker-automatons," says Bill Prendergast, a Stillwater resident who wrote for the town's newspaper and has documented every step of Bachmann's career. [ . . . ]

Bachmann's anti-standards crusade led her to her first political run. In 1999, she joined four other Republicans in Stillwater in an attempt to seize control of the school board. The "Slate of Five" proved unpopular: The GOP candidates finished dead last. Bachmann learned her lesson. "Since then, she has never abdicated control of her campaign or her message to anyone," says Cecconi, who defeated Bachmann in the race -- which remains the only election Bachmann has ever lost.

There follows the story of how she came to run for the Minnesota State Senate in 2006, which I won't try to straighten out. Taibbi's uptake:

Bachmann's entire political career has followed this exact same pattern of God-speaks-directly-to-me fundamentalism mixed with pathological, relentless, conscienceless lying. She's not a liar in the traditional way of politicians, who tend to lie dully, usefully and (they hope) believably, often with the aim of courting competing demographics at the same time. That's not what Bachmann's thing is. Bachmann lies because she can't help it, because it's a built-in component of both her genetics and her ideology. She is at once the most entertaining and the most dangerous kind of liar, a turbocharged cross between a born bullshit artist and a religious fanatic, for whom lying to the infidel is a kind of holy duty.

It has taken just over 10 years for Bachmann to go from small-town PTA maven to serious presidential contender, a testament to both her rare and unerring talent for generating media attention, and to her truly astonishing energy level and narcissistic tenacity. Minnesota politicians who have squared off against Bachmann all speak with a kind of horrified reverence for her martial indomitability, her brilliantly fortifying lack of self-doubt, even the fact that she hasn't appeared to physically age at all in 10 years.

Taibbi complains that "since then, getting herself elected is pretty much the only thing she has accomplished in politics," but follows with a long story sequence showing that while she hasn't passed any laws or legislative things like that, she has garnered a whole lot of press, and fares as well with the bad as with the good.

Given how Bachmann's stature rises every time she does something we laugh at, it's no wonder she's set her strangely unfocused eyes on the White House. Since arriving in Congress, she has been a human tabloid-copy machine, spouting one copy-worthy lunacy after another. She launched a fierce campaign against compact fluorescent lights, claiming that the energy-saving bulbs contain mercury and pose a "very real threat to children, disabled people, pets, senior citizens." She blasted the 2010 census as a government plot and told people not to comply because the U.S. Constitution doesn't require citizens to participate, when in fact it does. She told her constituents to be "armed and dangerous" in their resistance to cap-and-trade limits on climate-warming pollution. She insisted that Obama's trip to India cost taxpayers $200 million a day, and claimed that Nancy Pelosi had spent $100,000 on booze on state-paid flights aboard military jets.

This is not to say that Bachmann hasn't played a prominent role in Congress. Most significantly, she cannily positioned herself as the congressional champion of the Tea Party; last summer she formed a Tea Party caucus, which she now leads.

In other words, her Tea Party credentials are largely self-made, but who's going to challenge her claim? Charles Koch? Not very likely given that the Tea Party is allegedly a grassroots movement, led by no one. But Bachmann's used it to claim a level of legitimacy that she'd never have otherwise. Taibbi argues that she has a chance:

Even other Republicans, it seems, are making the mistake of laughing at Bachmann. But consider this possibility: She wins Iowa, then swallows the Tea Party and Christian vote whole for the next 30 or 40 primaries while Romney and Pawlenty battle fiercely over who is the more "viable" boring-white-guy candidate. Then Wall Street blows up again -- and it's Barack Obama and a soaring unemployment rate versus a white, God-fearing mother of 28 from the heartland.

It could happen. Michele Bachmann has found the flaw in the American Death Star. She is a television camera's dream, a threat to do or say something insane at any time, the ultimate reality-show protagonist. She has brilliantly piloted a media system that is incapable of averting its eyes from a story, riding that attention to an easy conquest of an overeducated cultural elite from both parties that is far too full of itself to understand the price of its contemptuous laughter. All of those people out there aren't voting for Michele Bachmann. They're voting against us. And to them, it turns out, we suck enough to make anyone a contender.

Now we can move on to Ryan Lizza: Leap of Faith: The Making of a Republican Front-Runner. Lizza starts off getting on Bachmann's chartered jet from Washington to Iowa.

The only senior member of the [Bachmann's campaign] team not making the trip was Ed Rollins, Bachmann's campaign manager. Rollins is famous in Washington for two things: managing Ronald Reagan's successful reëlection campaign against Walter Mondale in 1984, and developing poisonous relationships with most of his high-profile employers since then. They have included George H.W. Bush ("the worst campaigner to actually get elected President," according to Rollins), Ross Perot ("a paranoid lunatic on an ego trip"), and Arianna Huffington ("the most ruthless, unscrupulous, and ambitious person I'd met in thirty years in national politics"). More recently, he has managed the campaign of Mike Huckabee, appeared frequently on CNN, and worked in corporate public relations.

As for the candidate:

Bachmann belongs to a generation of Christian conservatives whose views have been shaped by institutions, tracts, and leaders not commonly known to secular Americans, or even to most Christians. Her campaign is going to be a conversation about a set of beliefs more extreme than those of any American politician of her stature, including Sarah Palin, to whom she is inevitably compared. Bachmann said in 2004 that being gay is "personal enslavement," and that, if same-sex marriage were legalized, "little children will be forced to learn that homosexuality is normal and natural and that perhaps they should try it." Speaking about gay-rights activists, that same year, she said, "It is our children that is the prize for this community." She believes that evolution is a theory that has "never been proven," and that intelligent design should be taught in schools.

Bachmann's assertions on these issues are, unsurprisingly, disputed. She is also often criticized for making factual errors on less controversial matters. As commentators quickly pointed out, the President during the first swine-flu outbreak was a Republican, Gerald Ford [she had claimed Jimmy Carter, along with Obama linking swine-flu outbreaks to Democratic presidents]. She got into more trouble this spring when, during a trip to Iowa before she announced her candidacy, she told a long story about her family's roots in the state.

Long story ensues, the upshot being that she managed to get most of her personal story wrong. Then biographical background, follows Taibbi above closely, except adds this bit:

In 1974, the year Bachmann graduated from high school, she spent the summer on a kibbutz near Beersheba, Israel, with a program that was something like Outward Bound for Christians. The trip gave her a connection to Israel, a state whose creation, many American evangelicals believe, is prophesied in the Bible. (St. Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, says that Jews will one day gather again in their homeland; modern fundamentalists see this, along with the coming of the Antichrist, as presaging the Rapture.) "Our job was to get up at four in the morning and go out to the cotton fields and pick weeds," Bachmann told me. "When we would go out in the morning, we would have soldiers that would go with us, and their job was to go through the fields to make sure that there weren't any mines."

In 1975 she enrolled at Winona State University, met and married Marcus Bachmann. In 1977 they "experienced a second life-altering event" watching a series of films by Francis Schaeffer:

Schaeffer, who ran a mission in the Swiss Alps known as L'Abri ("the shelter"), opposed liberal trends in theology. One of the most influential evangelical thinkers of the nineteen-seventies and early eighties, he has been credited with getting a generation of Christians involved in politics. Schaeffer's film series consists of ten episodes tracing the influence of Christianity on Western art and culture, from ancient Rome to Roe v. Wade. In the films, Schaeffer -- who has a white goatee and is dressed in a shearling coat and mountain climber's knickers -- condemns the influence of the Italian Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Darwin, secular humanism, and postmodernism. He repeatedly reminds viewers of the "inerrancy" of the Bible and the necessity of a Biblical world view. "There is only one real solution, and that's right back where the early church was," Schaeffer tells his audience. "The early church believed that only the Bible was the final authority. What these people really believed and what gave them their whole strength was in the truth of the Bible as the absolute infallible word of God."

Schaeffer, by the way, is a key figure in Max Blumenthal's Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party. Although Schaeffer was absolutely rabid on abortion, he turned out to be rather soft on homosexuality, so his followers wound up picking and choosing. His son Frank Schaeffer, who directed the films in question, later had second thoughts, writing Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. Lizza continues:

Schaeffer died in 1984. I asked his son Frank, who directed the movies -- and who has since left the evangelical movement and become a novelist -- about the change in tone. He told me that it all had to do with Roe v. Wade, which was decided by the Supreme Court while the film was being made. "Those first episodes are what Francis Schaeffer is doing while he was sitting in Switzerland having nice discussions with people who came through to find Jesus and talk about culture and art," he said. But then the Roe decision came, and "it wasn't a theory anymore. Now 'they' are killing babies. Then everything started getting unhinged. It wasn't just that we disagreed with the Supreme Court; it's that they're evil. It isn't just that the federal government may be taking too much power; now they are abusing it. We had been warning that humanism followed to its logical conclusion without Biblical absolutes is going to go into terrible places, and, look, it's happening right before our very eyes. Once that happens, everything becomes a kind of holy war, and if not an actual conspiracy then conspiracy-like."

Francis Schaeffer instructed his followers and students at L'Abri that the Bible was not just a book but "the total truth." He was a major contributor to the school of thought now known as Dominionism, which relies on Genesis 1:26, where man is urged to "have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." Sara Diamond, who has written several books about evangelical movements in America, has succinctly defined the philosophy that resulted from Schaeffer's interpretation: "Christians, and Christians alone, are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns."

In 1981, three years before he died, Schaeffer published "A Christian Manifesto," a guide for Christian activism, in which he argues for the violent overthrow of the government if Roe v. Wade isn't reversed. In his movie, Schaeffer warned that America's descent into tyranny would not look like Hitler's or Stalin's; it would probably be guided stealthily, by "a manipulative, authoritarian élite."

That is, by someone much like Barack Obama. Lizza cites Nancy Pearcey's Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity as developing this worldview further:

When, in 2005, the Minneapolis Star Tribune asked Bachmann what books she had read recently, she mentioned two: Ann Coulter's Treason, a jeremiad that accuses liberals of lacking patriotism, and Pearcey's Total Truth, which Bachmann told me was a "wonderful" book.

As Taibbi notes, Bachman went to O.W. Coburn School of Law in Oklahoma:

The first issue of the law review, Journal of Christian Jurisprudence, explains the two goals of the school: "to equip our students with the ability to bring God's healing power to reconcile individuals and to restore community wholeness," and "to restore law to its historic roots in the Bible."

Among the professors were Herbert W. Titus, a Vice-Presidential candidate of the far-right U.S. Taxpayers Party (now called the Constitution Party), and John Whitehead, who started the Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal-advocacy group. The law review published essays by Schaeffer and Rousas John Rushdoony, a prominent Dominionist who has called for a pure Christian theocracy in which Old Testament law -- execution for adulterers and homosexuals, for example -- would be instituted. In a 1982 essay in the law review, Rushdoony condemned the secularization of public schools and declared, "With the coming collapse of humanistic statism, the Christian must prepare to take over, he must prepare for victory." [ . . . ]

Bachmann worked for a professor named John Eidsmoe, who got her interested in the burgeoning homeschool movement. She helped him build a database of state homeschooling statutes, assisting his crusade to reverse laws that prevented parents from homeschooling their children. After that, Bachmann worked as Eidsmoe's research assistant on his book Christianity and the Constitution, published in 1987.

Eidsmoe explained to me how the Coburn School of Law, in the years that Bachmann was there, wove Christianity into the legal curriculum. "Say we're talking in criminal law, and we get to the subject of the insanity defense," he said. "Well, Biblically speaking, is there such a thing as insanity and is it a defense for a crime? We might look back to King David when he's captured by the Philistines and he starts frothing at the mouth, playing crazy and so on." When Biblical law conflicted with American law, Eidsmoe said, O.R.U. students were generally taught that "the first thing you should try to do is work through legal means and political means to get it changed."

Christianity and the Constitution is ostensibly a scholarly work about the religious beliefs of the Founders, but it is really a brief for political activism. Eidsmoe writes that America "was and to a large extent still is a Christian nation," and that "our culture should be permeated with a distinctively Christian flavoring." When I asked him if he believed that Bachmann's views were fully consistent with the prevailing ideology at O.R.U. and the themes of his book, he said, "Yes." Later, he added, "I do not know of any way in which they are not." [ . . . ]

Bachmann has not, however, distanced herself, and she has long described her work for Eidsmoe as an important part of her résumé. This spring, she told a church audience in Iowa, "I went down to Oral Roberts University, and one of the professors that had a great influence on me was an Iowan named John Eidsmoe. He's from Iowa, and he's a wonderful man. He has theology degrees, he has law degrees, he's absolutely brilliant. He taught me about so many aspects of our godly heritage."

In 1986, the Bachmanns moved to Virginia Beach, where Marcus "earned a master's degree in counselling at Pat Robertson's C.B.N. University, now known as Regent University," and Michele studied tax law at the College of William and Mary. They then moved back to Minnesota, where Bachmann worked for the I.R.S.

Two of Bachmann's five children were born while she worked for the I.R.S., and all six former colleagues said that the primary fact they remembered about Bachmann was that she spent a good portion of her time on maternity leave -- the I.R.S. had a fairly generous policy -- and that caused resentment.

"Basically, the rest of us that were here were handling Michele's inventory," one former colleague said. "In her four years, she probably didn't get more than two, two and a half years of experience. So she was doing lightweight stuff." A second colleague said, "She was an attorney here, but she was never here." (Bachmann declined a request to respond.) [ . . . ]

After the birth of her fourth child, in 1992, Bachmann left the I.R.S. to be a stay-at-home mother. The Bachmanns also began taking in foster children, all of whom were teen-age girls and many of whom had eating disorders. Bachmann's motivation seems to have been to save the girls, in the same way that she had been saved. "In my heart, God put something in me toward young people that I wanted to make sure the Gospel would go out to young people," she said, in 2006. "So that young people could come to know Jesus at an early age, the earlier the better, so that they wouldn't have to go through those pitfalls." [ . . . ]

In 1993, Bachmann became disturbed by schoolwork the foster children were bringing home. One high-school math assignment involved a coloring project. She began to wonder what had happened to the disciplined education system of her youth. When she was in school, she said in a speech, "the shop teacher also had a board hung up in the shop class with holes bored in it, and he would use that on the backside if somebody got out of line. Anybody remember those days? That's when I grew up. And it worked really well." Her foster children's homework, she continued, "had more to do with indoctrinating kids than educating kids. And the indoctrination had to do with anti-parent themes, anti-Biblical themes, anti-education themes, anti-academic themes."

Such concerns over education got her into politics (as Taibbi also relates).

Around this time, Bachmann became interested in the writings of David A. Noebel, the founder and director of Summit Ministries, an educational organization founded to reverse the harmful effects of what it calls "our current post-Christian culture." He was a longtime John Birch Society member, whose pamphlets include "The Homosexual Revolution: End Time Abomination," and "Communism, Hypnotism, and the Beatles," in which Noebel argued that the band was being used by Communists to infiltrate the minds of young Americans. Bachmann once gave a speech touting her relationship with Noebel's organization. "I went on to serve on the board of directors with Summit Ministries," she said, adding that Summit's message is "wonderful and worthwhile." She has also recommended to supporters Noebel's "Understanding the Times," a book that is popular in the Christian homeschooling movement. In it, he explains that the "Secular Humanist worldview" is one of America's greatest threats. Bachmann's analysis of education law similarly veered off into conspiratorial warnings. "Government now will be controlling people," she said during one lecture on education, at a church in Minnesota.

There is a section here on "Michele's Must Read List," including a biography of Robert E. Lee by J. Steven Wilkins, who argues that African slaves brought to America were "essentially lucky" -- after all, what better way to be saved by Christianity?

Bachmann, meanwhile, takes pains to stake her candidacy on the treasured word "liberty":

Bachmann and her political consultants also know that her inoffensive ode to liberty is necessary because many voters don't respond well to religious language. The more Bachmann talks about God, the more she is likely to be asked about Schaeffer, Eidsmoe, Noebel, and some of the other exotic influences on her thinking. The success of her campaign will rest partly on her ability to keep these influences, which she has talked about for years, out of the public discussion. As I started getting deeper into a conversation with her about Schaeffer, she abruptly ended the interview. She said she had to leave for an appearance on "Hannity" but would try to set up another time to talk. I didn't hear from her again. Her press secretary later told me that Bachmann "wasn't comfortable with the line of questions, and that's why there wasn't a follow-up conversation."

The second risk to Bachmann's campaign is one that's harder to control. Part of what's so appealing about her is that she speaks passionately and off the cuff. But she often seems to speak before she thinks, garbles words, mixes up history, or says things that don't make sense. At some point, when more people are paying attention, she might go just a bit too far.

Alex Pareene has a review of Lizza's piece:

That's just the bits of the profile dealing with Bachmann's spiritual and ideological mentors and influences. I didn't even paste the amazing Marcus Bachmann color or the tale of her horrible religious charter school or the many stories of how much Bachmann lies about her own background -- go read the whole thing!

Even in a post-Glenn Beck world where far-right extremism has become fairly normalized and occasionally embraced by a Republican Party that used to at least act embarrassed about its neo-Confederates and John Birchers and straight-up theocrats, Bachmann's ideological background is both radically anti-American (in the sense that America is a pluralist nation founded on Enlightenment values and not a pro-slavery Christian theocracy) and way, way outside the "mainstream." She's not just a hard-right-winger -- and not just a slightly dim "nut" -- but a full-on fringe character, a bigot following a bizarre strain of born-againism that even your average American evangelical would find too conspiracy-obsessed and ahistorical to be palatable.

Also see Michelle Goldberg: Bachman's Unrivaled Extremism:

On Monday, Bachmann didn't talk a lot about her religion. She didn't have to -- she knows how to signal it in ways that go right over secular heads. In criticizing Obama's Libya policy, for example, she said, "We are the head and not the tail." The phrase comes from Deuteronomy 28:13: "The Lord will make you the head and not the tail." As Rachel Tabachnick has reported, it's often used in theocratic circles to explain why Christians have an obligation to rule.

Indeed, no other candidate in the race is so completely a product of the evangelical right as Bachmann; she could easily become the Christian conservative alternative to the comparatively moderate Mormon Mitt Romney. "Michele Bachmann's a complete package," says Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition wunderkind who now runs the Faith and Freedom Coalition. "She's got charisma, she's got an authentic faith testimony, she's a proven fighter for conservative values, and she's well known." She's also great at raising money -- in the 2010 cycle, she amassed a record-breaking $13.2 million in donations.

Goldberg recounts the same bio, including pivotal appearances by Francis Schaeffer and John Eidsmore, winding up in politics.

Not that this means anything, but Bachmann did manage to win the Ames Straw Poll, although Ron Paul ran a close second. Rick Perry would have come in sixth on write-in votes, which is more impressive looking at the people below him (Romney, Gingrich, Huntsman) than those above him (Cain, Santorum, Pawlenty). Elsewhere I read that Perry got 99% of the write-in votes, which means that others (like Sarah Palin) could have split no more than 7 votes.

As for 9th place finisher, Thaddeus McCotter, the first I heard of him was when I was researching a record called Mad About Thad (a Thad Jones tribute), and ran across a website called Mad at Thad (McCotter). By the way, I thought John Bolton was running. Has he given up, or is he just batting below the McCotter line?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Midweek Roundup

It's piling up again. But first, Paul Krugman posted the deepest analysis I've seen of this week's roller coaster on Wall Street, a little thing he called Efficient Markets in Action. (If you don't get the title, check out John Quiggin: Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us, which has a full autopsy of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis; also covered in John Cassidy: How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities, and Yves Smith: Econned: How Unenlightened Self Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism; all recommended.)

Some more links squirreled away this (half-)week:

  • Steve Benen: Limbaugh Revisits Early 2009: Rush Limbaugh is claiming that "Obama 'inherited' a great situation from Bush" -- a key part of that situation was the AAA credit rating the House Republicans just blew up.

    But in the bigger picture, 2009 wasn't that long ago, and if the right really wants to talk about what Obama "inherited," I suspect that would be fine with the White House.

    After all, following eight years of spectacular Republican failures, Obama took office when the nation was in freefall. Arguably no president in American history started his first day with a list like this: the Great Recession, two deadly wars, a jobs crisis, a massive deficit and budget mess, crushing debt, a health care system in shambles, a climate crisis, an ineffective energy policy, an equally ineffective immigration policy, a housing crisis, the U.S. auto industry on the verge of collapse, a mess at Gitmo, a severely tarnished global reputation, an executive branch damaged by corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement, and an angry, deeply divided electorate.

    It was, by most measures, the worst national conditions ever faced by a newly-elected president.

    Limbaugh wants his minions to believe Bush bequeathed a healthy, prosperous nation. That's insane.

  • Steve Benen: Corporations and Context: Mitt Romney explains "why he's unwilling to raise taxes on corporations to protect entitlements": "Corporations are people, my friend." Uh, sure, people work for corporations, but under conditions that frequently lead to the use of terms like "dehumanizing." And corporations are owned by people, but increasingly they're foreigners because we keep running huge trade deficits, and the corporations (uh, "people") who reap those profits have to return the money somehow, which they mostly do by buying up US assets, like corporations (uh, "people"). Actually, corporations are what we should mostly be taxing, because they handle so much money, and because they have some flexibility in terms of passing taxes on as prices or, if the market won't bear that, absorbing them from profits. Benen sort of gets into this, then changes direction and asks: "why does Mitt Romney believe corporations can't be subjected to tax increases, but they can be broken up and sold for parts to make Romney rich?" This refers to Romney's background as head of leveraged buyout firm Bain Capital. He then lets Steve Colbert explain, as should I:

    You see, Romney made a Mittload of cash using what's known as a leveraged buyout. He'd buy a company with "money borrowed against their assets, groomed them to be sold off and in the interim collect huge management fees." Once Mitt had control of the company, he'd cut frivolous spending like "jobs," "workers," "employees," and "jobs.' [ . . . ]

    Because Mitt Romney knows just how to trim the fat. He rescued businesses like Dade Behring, Stage Stories, American Pad and Paper, and GS Industries, then his company sold them for a profit of $578 million after which all of those firms declared bankruptcy. Which sounds bad, but don't worry, almost no one worked there anymore.

    Besides, a businessman can't be weighed down with a bleeding heart. As one former Bain employee put it, "It was very clinical . . . Like a doctor. When the patient is dead, you just move on to the next patient."

    Benen concludes:

    Romney slashed American jobs as if his career depended on it -- and it did. Frank Rich recently explained, "In [his 1994 Senate] campaign, Romney was stalked by a 'Truth Squad' of striking workers from a Marion, Indiana, paper plant who had lost jobs, wages, health care, and pensions after Ampad, a Bain subsidiary, took control. Ampad eventually went bankrupt, but Bain walked away with $100 million for its $5 million investment. It was an all-too-typical Romney story."

    "Corporations are people"? In this little figure of speech, wouldn't that make Mitt Romney a metaphorical serial killer?

    Romney's also getting flack for this: Natasha Leonard: When Mitt Romney Bragged About Raising Taxes, not that anyone -- least of all Romney -- cares about what he said about anything 6-8-10 years ago. These things will nag at Romney all the way home, but Republicans have proven to be pretty tolerant of past sins as long as one toes the line now. Also, Romney, like Obama, is blessed by the quality of his opposition. Consider, for instance, Rick Perry: Justin Elliott: "My Faith Requires Me to Support Israel": no room for analysis here, straight on to Armageddon.

  • Barbara Ehrenreich: On Americans (Not) Getting By (Again): Looks back at her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed and finds much to add for a "2011 Version."

    We do of course have a collective way of ameliorating the hardships of individuals and families -- a government safety net that is meant to save the poor from spiraling down all the way to destitution. But its response to the economic emergency of the last few years has been spotty at best. The food stamp program has responded to the crisis fairly well, to the point where it now reaches about 37 million people, up about 30% from pre-recession levels. But welfare -- the traditional last resort for the down-and-out until it was "reformed" in 1996 -- only expanded by about 6% in the first two years of the recession.

    The difference between the two programs? There is a right to food stamps. You go to the office and, if you meet the statutory definition of need, they help you. For welfare, the street-level bureaucrats can, pretty much at their own discretion, just say no. [ . . . ]

    The most shocking thing I learned from my research on the fate of the working poor in the recession was the extent to which poverty has indeed been criminalized in America.

    Perhaps the constant suspicions of drug use and theft that I encountered in low-wage workplaces should have alerted me to the fact that, when you leave the relative safety of the middle class, you might as well have given up your citizenship and taken residence in a hostile nation.

    Most cities, for example, have ordinances designed to drive the destitute off the streets by outlawing such necessary activities of daily life as sitting, loitering, sleeping, or lying down. Urban officials boast that there is nothing discriminatory about such laws: "If you're lying on a sidewalk, whether you're homeless or a millionaire, you're in violation of the ordinance," a St. Petersburg, Florida, city attorney stated in June 2009, echoing Anatole France's immortal observation that "the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges . . ."

    In defiance of all reason and compassion, the criminalization of poverty has actually intensified as the weakened economy generates ever more poverty. So concludes a recent study from the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness, which finds that the number of ordinances against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with the harassment of the poor for more "neutral" infractions like jaywalking, littering, or carrying an open container. [ . . . ]

    In what has become a familiar pattern, the government defunds services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement. Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless. Generate no public-sector jobs, then penalize people for falling into debt. The experience of the poor, and especially poor people of color, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks. And if you should try to escape this nightmare reality into a brief, drug-induced high, it's "gotcha" all over again, because that of course is illegal too.

    One result is our staggering level of incarceration, the highest in the world. Today, exactly the same number of Americans -- 2.3 million -- reside in prison as in public housing. And what public housing remains has become ever more prison-like, with random police sweeps and, in a growing number of cities, proposed drug tests for residents. The safety net, or what remains of it, has been transformed into a dragnet.

  • Paul Krugman: Dismal Thoughts:

    To be an economist of my stripe these days -- basically a Keynes-via-Hicks type, who concluded as soon as Lehman fell that we were in a classic liquidity trap with all that implied -- is a bittersweet experience, with the bitter vastly greater than the sweet.

    The good news, such as it is, is that our underlying model has performed very well. Interest rates have stayed low despite large government borrowing; crowding out has been totally absent; huge increases in the monetary base have not been highly inflationary.

    The bad news is that policy makers almost everywhere have failed dismally, and seem determined not to take on board the lessons of experience, either historical or what we've learned the past few years. [ . . . ]

    I'm still trying to make sense of this global intellectual failure. But the results are not in question: we are making a total mess of a solvable problem, with consequences that will haunt us for decades to come.

  • Robert Reich: Why the President Doesn't Present a Bold Plan to Create Jobs and Jumpstart the Economy:

    Americans are deeply confused about why the economy is so bad -- and their President isn't telling them. In fact, the White House apparently has decided to join with Republicans and blame it on the long-term budget deficit. [ . . . ]

    Which gets me to the President. Even though the President's two former top economic advisors (Larry Summers and Christy Roemer) have called for a major fiscal boost to the economy, the President has remained mum. Why?

    I'm told White House political operatives are against a bold jobs plan. They believe the only jobs plan that could get through Congress would be so watered down as to have almost no impact by Election Day. They also worry the public wouldn't understand how more government spending in the near term can be consistent with long-term deficit reduction. And they fear Republicans would use any such initiative to further bash Obama as a big spender.

    So rather than fight for a bold jobs plan, the White House has apparently decided it's politically wiser to continue fighting about the deficit. The idea is to keep the public focused on the deficit drama -- to convince them their current economic woes have something to do with it, decry Washington's paralysis over fixing it, and then claim victory over whatever outcome emerges from the process recently negotiated to fix it. They hope all this will distract the public's attention from the President's failure to do anything about continuing high unemployment and economic anemia.

    Actually, Obama isn't doing either. He isn't able to campaign against Republican obstruction of his bold job creation program because he's too timid to even present one. If he did so, he'd have concrete proof that Republicans don't really care about jobs, and a case to take to the voters. Moreover, he'd be able to point out that every Republican president since Hoover believed in fiscal expansion to fight recessions; it's only these Republicans who reject Economics 101, and they're only doing so because they find it politically opportune.

    On the other hand, even having surrendered to the Republicans debt issue he hasn't managed to show up the Republicans' hypocrisy: unless they're willing to raise taxes, at least in the short term, they're simply not serious about their issue. But because he can't pass a bill raising taxes, he doesn't bother presenting one, pushing for one, campaigning on one. So on the one hand, he shies away from arguing with the Republicans over principles, including basic understanding of how the world works (leaving the people unexposed to anything but right-wing propaganda), and on the other hand he declined to present anything that might work because the Republicans won't let it. He is a prisoner in his own house.

  • John Paul Rollert: What Republicans Get Wrong About Capitalism: On Adam Smith's famous passage about self-interest leading to a common good:

    Thankfully, says Smith, human beings have a natural propensity to negotiate or, as he describes it, to truck, barter, and exchange. "Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want" is not only the manner in which we acquire most things in this world, but it is the building block for an economically advanced society. Thus, Smith declares in his most famous passage:

    It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

    People who read this passage and nothing else of Smith tend to regard it as an affirmation of the virtue and efficacy of selfishness over and against the relative impotence of altruism. But that isn't its significance for Smith. Yes, our personal interests act as a sharper spur to action than the interests of others, but the same may be said for the cocker spaniel. The difference is not that we have selfish interests, but that only by understanding the interests of others are we able to fulfill our own.

    So how did Smith's subtle argument get twisted into a paean for greed? Mostly through retelling by the very greedy:

    Consider Andrew Carnegie's perspective on who makes capitalism work in his essay "The Gospel of Wealth." Writing a century after Smith's death, the steel magnate describes the decisive moment when human beings began to favor a model of free competition that saw the separation of "the drones from the bees," a process that allowed for the "accumulation of wealth by those who have the ability and energy that produce it." Carnegie says of such people (who happen to look a lot like him) that they are so essential to society's development that those who object to the inequalities of a free market system might as well "urge the destruction of the highest existing type of man." In the same spirit, roughly 75 years later, Ayn Rand, in her aptly titled "What Is Capitalism?," focuses on the "the innovators" who promote a society's development. They are an "exceptional minority," she says, "who lift the whole of a free society to the level of their own achievements." What does everyone else contribute? On Rand's account -- nothing. "The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him," she says, "but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contribute nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all their brains."

    This is a striking alternative to Smith's vision. Instead of "the assistance and co-operation of many thousands," it is an elite caste that provides the vision, brains, and organizational savvy that ensure a thriving economy. They are the Visible Hand of capitalism, and for Carnegie, Rand, and others like them, if you want to know who makes capitalism work, simply stand at the base of the economic pyramid and look up. You'll find the "job creators" at the very top.

    Smith would be highly skeptical of such claims. In the final edition of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, written over a decade after The Wealth of Nations, he added a chapter in which he describes the "disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition." This disposition, Smith says, colors the way we view the world, leading us to conflate wealth and greatness with virtue and poverty and weakness with vice.

Expert Comments

Someone suggested having a P&J poll for EW reader/commenters.

On the "EW P&J" idea, I did something similar 2002-03 with about a dozen voters each time. It was predictable (Sleater-Kinney won in 2002, Buck 65 in 2003) but not without interest. Should still be working at Christgau's website: start with /th/wpj_intro.php and work from there. I've long thought that the top-10-only focus limited one of the main values of such a poll, which is to help you find obscure things you missed, so I tried to do something about that.

I'm not proposing anything here. Just pointing out some relevant data.

Update: On second thought, there is something to be said about living in a world where Buck 65 wins polls. Also shows, I think clearly, that he would have done better in the big poll if more people had heard the record (and didn't because they hadn't).

Alex Wilson has issued a couple rants about the rioters in Britain, including this bit:

People will undeniably associate the riots with the common answers for any trouble in Britain: wealth, education, etc, etc. I think chavs are just poorly educated, perhaps poorly raised and are just bad people in many cases. The fact that many of them probably don't work, scrounge benefits (coming out of decent citizens pockets) and spend them on drugs and generally think it is cool to beat people up, mug, rape, steal and kill, never seems to come into it. If these weren't kids and were adults, they would be classed as criminals -- and psychopathic ones at that. These rioters just want to fich sh!t up, etc, and have little morals. Of course, I want -- and expect -- rational debate about this matter, and I am not just being myopic in my conclusions, but people who do these kinds of things should not be reasoned with. They don't deserve it. Any 'reasons' that come up during the debates over the coming months will be: that kids feel isolated from society, the class/wealth gap, taxes, lack of jobs, education, parenting, etc. Some of these factors have relevance. Lack of jobs is not one of them; if these chavs acted appropriately, they would be able to find a job, and this should not be blamed on the recession. The reason they can't find work is because a. they don't want to, and b. they are ill-educated (not their fault), have poor work ethics and poor morals! It's hilarious -- well, in this case, not so funny -- how they can't see the irony!

Joe Lunday notices a lot of alt-pop/indie-rock in my metacritic file:

Joe Lunday: I've done metacritic files 3-4 years now (although never this detailed this early) and I'm not under the impression that there's anything unusual about this year's alt-pop/indie-rock dominance: it's always like that, and if you had asked me I would have said that if anything it's slightly down this year. It's what the sources cover, and that shows up not just in my counts but especially in the MC denominators. (Wild Beasts, by the way, was underreported. Just rechecked and it has 27 MC reviews instead of 11, but that only added 3 to the count.) I go out of my way to grab extra country, hip-hop, and jazz sources, but they're still way down the list. I don't have much in the way of world music sources, so they're in even worse shape.

There are other built-in selection biases, like the fact that nearly half of the pubs are UK-based. If I kept more data I could tune this more, but that would be a lot more work, or infrastructure (which is pretty much the same thing).

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Obama's Game

Drew Westen had a big piece in the New York Times on Sunday, What Happened to Obama? Westen wrote a book in 2007 called The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (paperback, 2008, Public Affairs), which purported to explain why some political arguments work and why many, including the analytical mode commonly dismissed as wonk, don't. (I have a copy of the book, but haven't gotten around to reading it -- perhaps because I'd rather stay on the wonk side, where arguments are subject to evaluation rather than merely being positioned propaganda points meant to persuade. The latter is obviously relevant to the way politics are routinely practiced in America, but that always feels like part of the problem, not part of the solution.)

Westen starts by reimagining Obama's 2009 inauguration speech:

When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was spinning in reverse. Three-quarters of a million people lost their jobs that month. Many had lost their homes, and with them the only nest eggs they had. Even the usually impervious upper middle class had seen a decade of stagnant or declining investment, with the stock market dropping in value with no end in sight. Hope was as scarce as credit.

In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety. What they were waiting for, in broad strokes, was a story something like this:

"I know you're scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn't work out. And it didn't work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results. But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can't promise that we won't make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again." A story isn't a policy. But that simple narrative -- and the policies that would naturally have flowed from it -- would have inoculated against much of what was to come in the intervening two and a half years of failed government, idled factories and idled hands. That story would have made clear that the president understood that the American people had given Democrats the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress to fix the mess the Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country, and that this would not be a power-sharing arrangement. It would have made clear that the problem wasn't tax-and-spend liberalism or the deficit -- a deficit that didn't exist until George W. Bush gave nearly $2 trillion in tax breaks largely to the wealthiest Americans and squandered $1 trillion in two wars.

And perhaps most important, it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it.

But there was no story -- and there has been none since.

Westen then goes on to contrast Obama with FDR, but he fails to note that Roosevelt in his own 1933 inaugural speech tried his best to be upbeat: as I recall, that's where the "nothing to fear but fear itself" line originated. (As it turns out, Obama did indeed have enemies to fear that FDR never had to contend with, starting with Rush Limbaugh.) There's no doubt in my mind that Obama should have worked harder to remind people that the problems he inherited were caused by previous administrations -- Bush above all, but also Clinton had much to do with the wave of banking deregulation that destroyed the economy. (Of course, when you're looking for villains, it's always fair game to shine some light on Phil Gramm.) In not doing so, he not only failed to "inoculate" himself from blame; he let the Republicans off the hook, leaving them free to attack him instead of having to defend themselves.

There's room for debate as to whether Obama actually believes in the narrative Westen sketched out here. He did wind up irritating some bankers with comments about bonuses and his support for a new consumer protection agency, but otherwise he treated the bankers awfully generously: loosening up liquidity by providing access to virtually unlimited cash, whitewashing bank liabilities with fake "stress tests," avoiding bankrupting any major banks, making sure that any equity the government obtained would be powerless, and not subjecting anyone short of Bernie Madoff to prosecution. It's hard to see how any banker could complain, but spoiled titans like Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein did anyway.

Westen dwells on the 2009 stimulus package, which as we should recognize now was far short of what it would have taken to fill the output gap, and with its inefficient tax cuts produced less stimulus than its sticker value promised. It's hard to tell what was worse: selling too small a stimulus package, or pretending that what passed would do the job. Either way, Obama proved to be both a poor economics analyst and an even shabbier tactician: the compromise he tried to make with established powers, both the Republicans in Congress and the lobbyists and proxies all around him, signalled his unwillingness to appeal to the people to fight for what he needed to be successful. And just as he was a pushover in the stimulus fight, he has gotten rolled over and over and over again.

Westen writes:

Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama -- and by extension the party he leads -- believes on virtually any issue. The president tells us he prefers a "balanced" approach to deficit reduction, one that weds "revenue enhancements" (a weak way of describing popular taxes on the rich and big corporations that are evading them) with "entitlement cuts" (an equally poor choice of words that implies that people who've worked their whole lives are looking for handouts). But the law he just signed includes only the cuts. This pattern of presenting inconsistent positions with no apparent recognition of their incoherence is another hallmark of this president's storytelling. He announces in a speech on energy and climate change that we need to expand offshore oil drilling and coal production -- two methods of obtaining fuels that contribute to the extreme weather Americans are now seeing. He supports a health care law that will use Medicaid to insure about 15 million more Americans and then endorses a budget plan that, through cuts to state budgets, will most likely decimate Medicaid and other essential programs for children, senior citizens and people who are vulnerable by virtue of disabilities or an economy that is getting weaker by the day. He gives a major speech on immigration reform after deporting around 800,000 immigrants in two years, a pace faster than nearly any other period in American history.

The real conundrum is why the president seems so compelled to take both sides of every issue, encouraging voters to project whatever they want on him, and hoping they won't realize which hand is holding the rabbit. That a large section of the country views him as a socialist while many in his own party are concluding that he does not share their values speaks volumes -- but not the volumes his advisers are selling: that if you make both the right and left mad, you must be doing something right.

Or, more likely. everything wrong. Westen tries his hand at diagnosis:

The most charitable explanation is that he and his advisers have succumbed to a view of electoral success to which many Democrats succumb -- that "centrist" voters like "centrist" politicians. Unfortunately, reality is more complicated. Centrist voters prefer honest politicians who help them solve their problems. A second possibility is that he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history. [ . . . ]

A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election. [ . . . ]

Or perhaps, like so many politicians who come to Washington, he has already been consciously or unconsciously corrupted by a system that tests the souls even of people of tremendous integrity, by forcing them to dial for dollars -- in the case of the modern presidency, for hundreds of millions of dollars. When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others' misery has no agency and hence no culpability. Whether that reflects his aversion to conflict, an aversion to conflict with potential campaign donors that today cripples both parties' ability to govern and threatens our democracy, or both, is unclear.

A final explanation is that he ran for president on two contradictory platforms: as a reformer who would clean up the system, and as a unity candidate who would transcend the lines of red and blue. He has pursued the one with which he is most comfortable given the constraints of his character, consistently choosing the message of bipartisanship over the message of confrontation.

I don't have a much more definitive diagnosis myself. It seems pretty clear now that Obama's political positions are very moderate if not downright conservative. Paul Krugman likes to point out that Obama ran to the right of his 2008 opponents, and he can score that on issues, but no one mentions that Clinton had a well established track record of veering right in any emergency, and Edwards never quite convinced us he was a real populist -- indeed, his Senate record was to the right of either. So there was some wishful thinking among those who favored Obama over Clinton (who also had a nepotism problem, something all the more distasteful after eight Bush years, don't you think?).

Obama started out far from political power, and moved up the ladder and into the corridors of power thanks to talent and skills, but also because he never threatened those powers. When he assumed the presidency, his idea of change was nothing more than to restore responsible, balanced, and respectable leadership to the office. He seems, indeed, to have fully accepted the 30-year long march of the conservatives as fait accompli -- as an intrinsic part of the social and economic order he intended to serve: as something he would salute like the flag and the generals, as something he would routinely praise and invoke the blessings of, like God. Moreover, he subjected his personal fate to the various powers, not only by letting them weigh in and ultimately dictate his policies -- his health care act was first cleared by the AMA, the insurers, and Pharma; he ran banking reform by the banks, and cap-and-trade by the utilities; he let the generals write their own marching orders in Afghanistan, and he let Dennis Ross run his Israel/Palestine initiative off the road -- he gave them no cause to doubt his fidelity. In particular, he never tried to rally the people against anything more than the most craven obstruction by the Republicans, and he never tried to change the rules of the game by making the influence of the lobbies an issue. And when the Republicans did attack, he rarely failed to meet them more than half way. He gave them their tax cuts, even knowing the burgeoning deficit would hurt him politically and knowing that he'd never get any stimulus benefit from them. He adopted their stand on deficits even though their austerity would hurt the economy, would especially hurt the people who had voted for him, and would gain him no credit. He has scarcely ever responded to even the most scurrilous Republican slanders, most likely because he fears upsetting the powers he has sworn his allegiance to.

Nonetheless, his reëlection campaign depends on more than appearing to donors to be the most reasonable guy in the room. It depends on organizing his base to believe that he's on their side against the dastardly Republicans, and it's only getting harder to both at the same time. It's true for politicians that there are two seasons: one where you appeal the the people for votes, the other where you appeal to those with the money and backroom clout. Obama certainly knows how to play both ends of the court, but few politicians have made the transition from one role to the other so visible. Presumably he will shift back to making his appeal to the voters, but it's going to be tougher this time because he's got a track record now.

For starters, in many voters' eyes he now owns a big chunk of the problems he inherited, all the more so because he didn't pin the blame on his predecessor(s) when he started out. Moreover, he's consistently underestimated the depths of those problems, and overestimated what his programs could do -- the stimulus, of course, but also Afghanistan. And when he concedes ground to so many Republican talking points he just gives his opponents clubs to bash him with. He may not need a coherent message to do backroom deals in Washington, but he will need one to go back to the voters, and it's hard to see it, much less have faith in it.

Westen wishes he would move his story to the left, to tap into the pain that his potential voters are feeling, and indeed -- especially when you realize what the Republicans are really up to -- that would raise his game, as well as lead to policies that are both more moral and potentially a lot more effective. On the other hand, having shown himself to be a deep believer in the status quo ante -- before the crash, but not necessarily before the bubble that inflated it -- populist rhetoric is going to come hard to him. But Westen could have written an even more troubling article: rather than harp on Obama's storytelling or his inexperience or his lack of accomplishment, Westen could have called into question Obama's inability to tap into, or even relate to, voters' emotions. Running in a much smaller and simpler recession, Bill Clinton told people "I feel your pain" (which was pretty much bullshit, but he convinced a lot of people). Can you imagine Obama even trying to say that? I don't doubt that he knows people are suffering, but can he feel it? Indeed, in his courting of the Jamie Dimons of this world, and his cavalier eagerness to trade off the elderly's hard-earned "entitlements," I find myself wondering whether he cares for or relates to his voters at all. If anything is going to cost him the election, it's his high-minded indifference.

More Obama Notes

Decided to chop the following off from the post. Not so much that it's wrong as that it doesn't go anywhere definite.

Westen thinks that Obama should be more progressive than he is, but also that Obama should be more effective than he's been, not so much in advancing the left's cause -- which he pretty clearly doesn't support -- as in saving his own hide. It would be a good idea to try to disentangle these concerns.

Obama no doubt has his own reasons for not supporting the left: I've suggested above and elsewhere that this is mostly due to his obeissance to wealth and power (and we might as well add God and Empire to that list), which seems to be a deep character trait. He (or his apologists) might rejoin that he doesn't support left policies because there's nowhere near enough practical support to get them implemented. That's a rathole I don't want to go down right now, but I will argue that there are two reasons why Obama should consider supporting progressive policies even if they don't look like obvious winners given the current balance of power: one is that some (I'd say all, but that's me) policies are morally right, and there's something to be said for a politician to take the moral high ground; the other is that sometimes they're the one thing that actually works -- single-payer health care is an obvious example.

Even if most of the time Obama is better off -- at least in his own terms, most crudely measured by popularity, getting reëlected, and making scads of money after leaving office giving speeches and selling books -- following the conventional wisdom, one would think that at least sometimes he would ultimately be better off having done a few things that were effective and morally right. On the other hand, Obama's actual attitude to the left has mostly been to call us names ("retards" is a favorite), to control the Democratic Party top-down, and to squash any nominations of progressives when they accidentally happen. In other words, his attitude is such as to preclude ever having the option of even offerng a left solution.

At least in election terms, Obama can get away with such contempt for the conscious, articulate left, because they (we) are so aware of the relative disaster lurking on the far-right that he can count on being the lesser evil. But the left tries to represent a lot of people who are far less cognizant about who their friends and enemies are, and those people include most of the voters Democrats need to win any election. A lot of those people, seeing virtually no help coming in from the Democrats' 2008 sweep, checked out from the 2010 election, allowing the Republicans to win the House and fuck everyone (Obama included, even if he likes to think he's enjoying it).

We all understand that Obama can't do everything we'd like him to do, but still the left has two major problems with Obama: one is that he doesn't use his position and oratorical skills to make key points in the policy debate, and the other is that he hasn't any real effort to build up and empower his party's base (which, e.g., Howard Dean, when he was chair of the Democratic Party, was very successful at). David Frum has said, quite presciently, that the Republicans fear their base, whereas the Democrats despise theirs. Back after the 2008 election when the Republicans had been routed and their politicians were in the dumps, it was the Republican base, which the GOP had systematically cranked up to a state of lunacy over several decades, that rallied and wound up holding the Democrats in check. Democrats have long been neglected by their party, which is a big part of the reason so many people who should vote Democratic don't vote at all. But it could be different, as was shown the spontaneous outpouring in Wisconsin last year. In some ways that's the last thing that Obama wants: it would show his rich sponsors that he's lost control of the rank and file. But if he's to have any chance of winning reëlection in 2012, he has to get some kind of grassroots organization. And while in 2008 he did just that on the basis of hope and faith, in 2012 he's going to have to reëstablish his credibility.

The problem there isn't just his intellectual disdain of the left. It's that he no longer seems like the kind of guy who cares a whit about other people. That really gets into Westen's court, so I'm surprised he didn't pursue it further. It's the one thing that's going to get Obama beat, even by a malevolent Republican who don't give a shit either but hasn't proven yet that he (or quite possibly she) is just faking it. I've felt up to this moment that Obama can't possibly lose in 2012 given the quality of any conceivable Republican opponent.

I've been leaning on Steve Benen quite a bit recently, but I didn't take much away from his defensive response, The Westen Piece, other than this:

There's a sizable contingent on the left that wants Obama to be The Great Progressive Pugilist, shaping a agenda around blistering attacks on Republicans and their allies. Love him or hate him, Obama has never been that guy. Remember the 2004 Democratic convention speech that launched Obama into the political stratosphere? It was the keynote address in a year Dems were taking on an incumbent, and Obama literally never even mentioned Bush or Cheney.

He doesn't want to pick partisan fights. He said as much in 2008 and won in a near-landslide.

Of course, we on the left would love to have a sympathetic president advancing left arguments, campaigning for left policies. For many of us it's finally sunk in that Obama isn't that person. But Obama has two new problems he didn't have in 2008. One is that he's assumed a lot of the responsibility for the many messes we're in -- the failed economy, the continuing wars and everything associated with them from loss of civil liberties to blowback, the failure to even advance recognition of global warming -- less because of what he's done (which at best has been damn little) than because of his unwillingness to distance himself from those more responsible (Bush, especially, but on things like bank deregulation you also have to blame Clinton's team, most of whom found jobs in Obama's administration). The second thing is that he's shown himself to be inept at defending against Republican assaults. I'm sure there are people who will argue that he's done the best anyone could, but that's hard to stomach much less believe.

Moreover, since he's proven that he's not going to advance anything the left cares about -- rolling back the worldwide military footprint, reversing the trend toward inequality that is destroying opportunity for all but the rich today, and countering the all-pervasive corruption of money in politics -- his claim on our votes comes down to his ability to keep the Republicans at bay. I know people who think he's so inept at it that they feel we would be better off with a Republican president, who would clearly get the blame for Republian policies, and would incite a Democratic Party movement to fight back. [ . . . ]

I'll stop here, becaue I feel like I'm writing circles around myself.

Expert Comments

Something on 1-on-1 tribute albums:

I figured I'd have a lot of 1-on-1 jazz tributes, but scanning through my A-list I only find three:

  • Alexander von Schlippenbach's Monk's Casino
  • Jewels and Binoculars: Ships With Tatooed Sails - Bob Dylan songs
  • Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy

Mingus at Carnegie Hall is an all-Ellington program, but only two cuts and not an explicit tribute. Expected to find more, and I'm sure there are dozens down at A-. Maybe I'm just stingy with A's? I have 5.78 A- (in jazz, anyhow) for each A/A+, whereas Christgau's ratio is 3.08:1.

Sharpsm caught a missing one. I responded:

Right, Benjamin Herman: Hypo Christmas Treefuzz: More Mengelberg. Also missed Michael Hashim's Green Up Time, if it counts (Kurt Weill).

Went looking through the A- list and came up with close to 40 more, some arguable. No doubt I missed things, especially all-Ellington and all-Monk programs (look, no Steve Lacy below), so consider this representative rather than complete:

  • Affinity: A Tribute to Eric Dolphy (1995)
  • Howard Alden: Your Story - The Music of Bill Evans (1994)
  • Harry Allen: Plays Ellington Songs (2000)
  • Louis Armstrong: Satch Plays Fats (1955)
  • Billy Bang/Sun Ra: A Tribute to Stuff Smith (1992)
  • Patricia Barber: The Cole Porter Mix (2008)
  • Ruby Braff: Very Sinatra (1982)
  • Anthony Braxton: Six Monk's Compositions (1987)
  • Anthony Braxton: Eight (+3) Tristano Compositions 1989
  • Anthony Braxton: Charlie Parker Project 1993
  • Anthony Brown: Monk's Moods (2000)
  • Kenny Burrell: Ellington Is Forever Vol. 1 (1975)
  • Chris Byars: Lucky Strikes Again (2010) - Lucky Thompson
  • Freddy Cole: Freddy Cole Sings Mr. B (2010)
  • James Dapogny: Original Jelly Roll Blues (1993)
  • Vic Dickenson: Plays Bessie Smith: Trombone Cholly (1976)
  • Eliane Elias: Sings Jobim (1997)
  • Kenny Garrett/Pharoah Sanders: Sketches of MD (2008)
  • Charles Gayle: Touchin' on Trane (1991)
  • Marty Grosz/Keith Ingham: Unsaturated Fats (1990)
  • Scott Hamilton: Organic Duke (1994)
  • Michael Hashim: Keep a Song in Your Soul (1996) - Fats Waller
  • The Herbie Nichols Project: Strange City (2001-02)
  • John Hicks: Lover Man: A Tribute to Billie Holiday (1993)
  • Dick Hyman/Chris Hopkins: Teddy Wilson in 4 Hands (2006)
  • Hank Jones: Upon Reflection: The Music of Thad Jones (1993)
  • Wynton Marsalis: Mr. Jelly Lord (1998)
  • The Microscopic Septet: Friday the Thirteenth: The Micros Play Monk (2010)
  • Mingus Dynasty/Big Band Charlie Mingus: Live at the Theatre Boulogne-Billancourt Volume 2 (1988)
  • Jewels and Binoculars: The Music of Bob Dylan (2000)
  • Jewels and Binoculars: Floater (2003) - Bob Dylan
  • David Murray: Octet Plays Trane (2000)
  • William Parker: I Plan to Stay a Believer: The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield (2001-08)
  • Houston Person: To Etta With Love (2004)
  • Bob Rockwell: Bob's Ben: A Salute to Ben Webster (2005)
  • Pharoah Sanders: Crescent with Love (1992) - John Coltrane
  • Ken Vandermark: Straight Lines (1998) - Joe Harriott
  • Roseanna Vitro: Catchin' Some Rays: The Music of Ray Charles (1997)
  • John Zorn: Voodoo: The Music of Sonny Clark (1985)

A couple of these are explicit tribute bands. I don't have Ella Fitzgerald: The Complete Songbooks broken out into its constituent packages, but the Arlen, Porter, Rodgers/Hart, and Berlin would definitely make the list; probably the Gershwin, Ellington, and Mercer too (but not Kern, which I have a B+ grade for).

Updated Christgau's website:

FYI, Robert Christgau website update moments ago. Details (such as they are) in Changelog.php. I was looking at the CG Stats file earlier today, and noticed that there were exactly 15000 rated albums in the database. (Then I messed that up by adding the latest pair.) Added an unrated column to CG Stats after I noticed a couple of empty rows and wondered what was going on. Now it all adds up. Someone here suggested the Google search widget. Took a while but finally figured out how to do that.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Rhapsody Streamnotes (August 2011)

Pick up text here.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Music Week

Music: Current count 18506 [18471] rated (+35), 873 [877] unrated (-4). Sent Jazz CG (27) to the Village Voice. Posted August's Downloader's Diary and Recycled Goods, spiffing the latter up to be the most substantial in at least six months -- the long-delayed CTI reissues making up much of the bulk. Rhapsody Streamnotes coming later this week, so I added a bit to it. Did some Jazz Prospecting, too, pulling exclusively from the overstocked mid-level queue and finding lots of middling records.

Jazz Prospecting (JCG #28, Part 1)

Jazz CG (27) is at the Voice now, so all to do there is to wait. New round starts this week. Mid-priority queue was stuffed, so I started there, mostly finding middling records: a couple pleasant surprises, a couple disappointments. The queue is currently running 240 deep, so I often feel the pressure to move on. That limits most records to one or two spins, enough to fix a reasonably considered grade but rarely enough to explain it in prose: I often find myself at the end of a record searching for a summary line, and rarely come up with a good one. Sometimes I just let the matter go, hoping the grade will suffice.

I was on a roll early in the week, then let up to spend some time polishing what turned out to be the most substantial Recycled Goods of the last 4-6 months. The big chunk in the middle covers the CTI reissues from Sony Masterworks. I usually slip jazz reissues into Jazz Prospecting, but in this case skipped them because the pile was so large. Possibly also because I didn't expect any of them to prove interesting enough to claim Jazz CG space. The very first Jazz CG did have a reissues section, but since then I've never had enough space (nor lately enough reissues) to bother. On the other hand, most Jazz CG columns do have one or two old records -- usually newly released archives but occasionally obscure reissues (like the Warren Smith album below, only better).

Also packed some more impressions into Rhapsody Streamnotes, which will be posted later this week.

Jane Bunnett & Hilario Duran: Cuban Rhapsody (2011, ALMA): Duets, with Cuban pianist Duran and longtime Cubanophile, Canadian soprano saxophonist/flutist Bunnett -- her first Cuban-themed album was Spirits of Havana in 1991 and she's never let up. She plays more flute here but I much prefer her soprano. Seems a bit spare with no percussion, although Duran certainly knows his stuff. B+(*)

Gutbucket: Flock (2010 [2011], Cuneiform): First squawk out of the box sounds great, plus the song there is called "Fuck You and Your Hipster Tie." Band consists of Ken Thomson (saxes and clarinets, mostly alto sax), Ty Citerman (guitar), Eric Rockwin (bass, mostly electric), and Adam Gold (drums). Fifth album since 2001. As with several recent fusion groups, the sax (or even clarinet) gives the guitar a sharper edge, and working that sound is the group's strong suit. The rock rhythms, though, can get a bit sludgy. B+(**)

Chuck Deardorf: Transparence (2007-10 [2011], Origin): Bassist (upright, electric, fretless), b. 1954, based in Seattle, teaches at Cornish College of the Arts. First album, but has 40-50 side credits, going back to Don Lanphere in 1984. Wrote 1.5 of 10 pieces here (the co-credit with pianist Bill Mays), with two more pieces by musicians on the record (Bruce Forman, Jovino Santos Neto). Looks like the pieces were recorded over several years with various combos yet the flow together remarkably well, mostly due to the four guitarists. B+(**)

Anne Mette Iversen: Milo Songs (2011, Bju'ecords): Bassist, composer of course, from Denmark (not clear from her bio), studied piano at Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, bass at Rhythmic Conservatory of Music (also Copenhagen), got a BFA at New School in 2001. Based in New York. Fourth album since 2004, a quartet with John Ellis (tenor sax, clarinet), Danny Grissett (piano), and Otis Brown III (drums). Ellis is especially fine here, as he's been on several recent records. Grissett has his spots. As for the bassist-composer, the whole thing flows effortlessly, her role inconspicuous, and perhaps all the more remarkable for that. B+(***)

Jeff Fairbanks' Project Hansori: Mulberry Street (2009-10 [2011], Bju'ecords): Trombone player, studied at University of South Florida, now based in New York. First album (only one of 4 side credits AMG lists looks right). Korean-themed big band project -- presumably wife (and guest cellist) Heun Choi Fairbanks has something to do with the interest. Baritone saxophonist Fred Ho, whose Afro Asian Music Ensemble set the standard for this sort of thing, gets a "with special guest" credit on the front cover, but only appears on two tracks. There are spots where the Korean rhythms and tones emerge, but mostly a pretty solid big band record. B+(*)

Travis Sullivan: New Directions (2010 [2011], Posi-Tone): Alto saxophonist, b. 1971, has a couple previous records, the first from 2000, another a collection of Björk songs released in 2008 as Travis Sullivan's Bjorkestra. Mainstream quartet with Mike Eckroth (piano), Marco Panascia (bass), and Brian Fishler (drums). Eight originals, two covers (one Rodgers/Hart). Nothing strikes me as a new direction, but the sax is fast and slick and inclined to soar out of the matrix. Hard to complain about that combo. B+(**)

Melvin Jones: Pivot (2009, Exotic): Trumpet player, from Atlanta, storied at Morehouse, then Mason Gross School of the Arts (in New Jersey). First album. Glossier than hard bop, but that's the basic setup: Mace Hibbard on alto and tenor sax, Louis Heriveaux on piano, Rodney Jordan on bass, and Leon Anderson on drums, except when various "guests" break in. Upbeat, boisterous, souful, a bit on the slick side. B+(**)

Aaron Goldberg and Guillermo Klein: Bienestan (2009 [2011], Sunnyside): Two pianists, although not a piano duet album. Klein, the senior member less because he's four years older (b. 1970) than because he wrote all of the originals (7.5 of 13, the fraction an intro to "All the Things You Are" to close the album). But Goldberg is the lead pianist, with Klein chiming in on Fender Rhodes: no track credits between them, but seems like mostly one or the other, which means mostly Goldberg. Also on board: Matt Penman (bass), Eric Harland (drums), Miguel Zenon (alto sax on five cuts, including both Charlie Parker tunes), and Chris Cheek (tenor sax on two, soprano on one, all of those with Zenon, none by Parker). Traces of tango seep in here and there -- Klein is from Argentina, so that's almost a given. The rapid-fire rat-a-tat of "Human Feel," with both horns in sync, is especially noteworthy. B+(**)

Warren Smith: Dragon Dave Meets Prince Black Knight From the Darkside of the Moon (1988 [2011], Porter): Drummer, b. 1934, AMG credits him with seven albums since 1979, or maybe nine, but they also confuse him with the eponymous rockabilly singer from the 1950s. Has well over 100 side credits, early on including Mingus, Kirk, and Pearls Before Swine (also says here he was on Astral Weeks and Lady Soul and Best of Herbie Mann). When he did get a chance to record for a fairly mainstream label he called his record Cats Are Stealing My $hit (on Mapleshade in 1995). Anyway, no one stole this, uh, "children's story -- with adult language -- depicting the conflict between two super beings (super powers) unable to co-exist, whose resulting clash disturbs and alters the face of the planet" -- i.e., the state of the world in the 1980s. Could be more didactic, but it's hard to follow the voices, especially with all the crashes and explosions. On the other hand, Smith's marimba keeps the clashes moving along smartly. B+(*)

Bill Carrothers: A Night at the Village Vanguard (2009 [2011], Pirouet, 2CD): Pianist, b. 1964 in Minneapolis, has more than a dozen albums since 1992, mostly trios, one from 2005 called Shine Ball that I especially liked (possibly because it's the one he played prepared piano on). This is another trio, with Nicholas Thys on bass and Dré Pallemaerts on drums, the same group he recorded Swing Sing Songs with ten years earlier. A disc for each set that night, both sets starting off with Clifford Brown songs, winding up with about half originals. Not so clear at my usual volume levels; cranking it up helped with the definition, but I still can't come up with much to say. B+(*)

Falkner Evans: The Point of the Moon (2010 [2011], CAP): Pianist, originally from Oklahoma, played for a while with Asleep at the Wheel, moved to New York in 1985 and went into jazz, notably with Cecil McBee. Fourth album since 2002. Aside from the last two cuts, this is a pretty typical hard bop group, with Greg Tardy (tenor sax), Ron Horton (trumpet), Belden Bullock (bass), and Matt Wilson (drums), the stereotypical postbop jazz sound. Shifts a bit at the end, with Gary Versace sitting in on the last two cuts, one on organ, the other on accordion. Both slow the pace, blunt the horns, and the latter slips in a little tango. B

Aaron Shragge & Ben Monder: The Key Is in the Window (2010 [2011], Tzviryu Music): Trumpet-guitar duets. Monder is a well-known guitarist but most of what you know about him -- especially his sense of groove -- is not relevant here. Don't know much about Shragge: studied at New School and NYU, is interested in the music of North India and Japan, also plays shakuhachi. Looks like his first album, although he has a piece of another one (or two). Mostly slow, deep, trance-like. B+(**)

Yelena Eckemoff: Grass Catching the Wind (2009-10 [2011], Yelena Music): Pianist, from Moscow, moved to US in 1991. Website lists 17 albums, doesn't give dates -- probably start in early 1990s -- but divides them up as 4 classical, 2 vocal, and 11 "original instrumental" albums, including one that came out after this one (Flying Steps, with Derek Oleszkiewicz and Peter Erskine; don't have it). This is a piano trio, cut in Copenhagen with Mads Vinding on bass and Morten Lund on drums. All originals. Most have strong rhythm and I always like that in a pianist, along with crisp and clever fingerwork. B+(**)

Buzz Bros Band: Ppff Unk (2009 [2011], Buzz Music): Dutch group, led by guitarist Marnix Busstra, with his brother Berthil Busstra on keyboards, Frans Van Geest on double bass, and Chris Strik on drums, with "special guest" Simone Roerade singing two songs. Founded in 2001, as near as I can figure out they have two albums and some DVDs. I've run into Marnix before, on a couple of pretty good albums with vibraphonist Mike Mainieri. The keyb/guitar mix here is often quite sweet, with or without any noticeable funk quotient. B

Ocote Soul Sounds: Taurus (2011, ESL Music): Brooklyn Latin funk group, led by Martin Perna (flutes, saxes, shekere, quijada, tambourine, melodica, vocals, guitar, bass), a spinoff from Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. Fourth album. Adrian Quesada (guitar, bass, electric piano, organ, background vocals) was on the masthead the last two albums; he continues here, but has receded typographically but remains co-leader. Grooveful, politically astute. B+(**)

Christian Pabst Trio: Days of Infinity (2010 [2011], Challenge): Pianist, b. 1984 in Germany, moved to Netherlands in 2006, studying at Conservatory of Amsterdam. First album. Six (of ten) cuts are piano trio with David Andres on bass and Andreas Klein on drums. The other four add trumpet player Gerard Prescencer. The piano is vibrant, mostly upbeat. The trumpet and flugelhorn offer a nice change of pace. B+(**)

Mr. Ho's Orchestrotica: Third River Rangoon (2011, Tiki): Boston group, led by Brian O'Neill (vibes, percussion), was a big band on their 2010 debut (Presents . . . The Unforgettable Sounds of Esquivel), stripped down to a quartet here, with Geni Skendo on bass flute and c-flute, Jason Davis on bass, and Noriko Terada on percussion. Aims for 1950s exotica; comes up a bit flat. B

NY Jazz Initiative: Mad About Thad (2010 [2011], Jazzheads): Well, aren't we all? Thad, of course, is Thad Jones, elder brother to Hank and Elvin (all three are in Downbeat's Hall of Fame), trumpeter, composer. NY Jazz Initiative is mostly an octet (two pianists alternate; an extra trombone shows up on the first cut), with soprano/tenor saxophonist Rob Derke listed first and given credit for arranging 4 of 8 pieces -- the other pieces were arranged by non-members. The three saxes (Derke, Ralph Lalama, Steve Wilson), trumpet (David Smith), and trombone (Sam Burtis, who also plays some tuba) light this up. B+(***)

Andrew Sterman: Wet Paint (2011, Innova): Plays tenor sax and alto flute. I figure this is his fifth album since 2002, but AMG splits him up between classical -- he has an album of Philip Glass: Saxophone (Glass, of course, is a pop star in my house) -- and otherwise (meaning jazz in this case). With piano-bass-drums across the board, otherwise split up with Richie Vitale's trumpet/flugelhorn on four cuts, Todd Reynolds' violin on four more -- each taking on the characteristics of the accompaniment. B+(*)

No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.

Unpacking: Found in the mail over the last week:

  • Miles Davis Quintet: Live Europe 1967: Bootleg Vol. 1 (Columbia/Legacy, 3CD+DVD): advance
  • Harris Eisenstadt: September Trio (Clean Feed)
  • Jonathan Elias: Path to Zero: Prayer Cycle (Downtown)
  • European Movement Jazz Orchestra: EMJO: Live in Coimbra (Clean Feed)
  • Thomas Heberer's Clarino: Klippe (Clean Feed)
  • Gerry Hemingway Quintet: Riptide (Clean Feed)
  • Darius Jones: Big Gurl (Smell My Dream) (AUM Fidelity)
  • Benji Kaplan: Meditações No Violão (Circo Mistico)
  • Edgar Knecht: Good Morning Lilofee (Ozella)
  • Helge Lien: Natsukashii (Ozella)
  • Motif: Art Transplant (Clean Feed)
  • Planet Z: Planet Z Featuring Susan Aquila (Blue Chair)
  • Karl Seglem: Ossicles (Ozella)
  • Sara Serpa: Mobile (Inner Circle Music)
  • SFE: Positions & Descriptions: Simon H. Fell Composition No. 75 (Clean Feed)
  • The Taal Tantra Experience: Sixth Sense (Ozella)

Expert Comments

Bradley Sroka flagged "reëlected" as a strange typo. I differed:

For Bradley, et al. The alleged umlaut on reëlected is really a diaresis as used in French. It means that the second vowel is to be pronounced as a separate syllable, as in Noël and naïve. It's an elegant solution to the problem of sticking re- at the beginning of words starting with a vowel -- otherwise you'd be tempted to treat "ee" as a single long vowel sound -- but as far as I know only The New Yorker practices it in the US (I've also seen it used in the UK, where every sophisticated gent since Richard I learns a little French), so it's mostly mistaken here, maybe even considered effete.

Umlaut is a German word, used there on [a,o,u] where it changes the vowel sound. It's interchangeable with adding a following e, as in [ae,oe,ue]. This is why Motley Crüe is an unpronounceable idiocy. Blue Öyster Cult has a similar problem, although it's harder to explain. Hüsker Dü, by the way, is viable in German, but it hurts my face to try to pronounce it that way.

Responding to sharpsm (quoted):

But Tom, I've got to ask: is Warren Smith's Cats Are Stealing My $hit worth hearing? (What a title!)

I can picture the lime green album cover but can't recall the music, and didn't write down any notes -- at least none I can find now, other than the B- grade, so I have to say not. On the other hand, the reissue in Jazz Prospecting today, Dragon Dave Meets Prince Black Knight From the Darkside of the Moon, is worth a spin if you are into the early 1970s "black power" avant-garde -- it as done later but has the same aesthetic. I don't think it's especially good, but it's not the sort of thing you hear often. The label, Porter, is very tuned into early '70s avant-garde and has found a few really obscure gems there. Most of their stuff is on Rhapsody.

The other Jazz Prospecting record that I think has some upside potential is Aaron Shragge -- imagine Jon Hassell louder sans beats. I played it twice, decided that was as much time a I was willing to spend. The (***) records are much more conventional postbop, well done, but have almost certainly hit their ceiling.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Weekend Roundup

Some scattered links I squirreled away during the previous week (with most of the S&P downgrade shunted off to a separate post):

  • Steve Benen: Mitch McConnell, Hostage Taker: Starts with a quote from McConnell (R-KY, Senate Republican Leader) bragging about his role in the debt limit caper: "I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting. Most of us didn't think that. What we did learn is this -- it's a hostage that's worth ransoming." Benen unpacks:

    And third, note that McConnell was quite candid in his choice of words. It's not just Democrats talking about Republicans taking "hostages" and demanding "ransoms"; here's the leading Senate Republican using the exact same language. In other words, Mitch McConnell admitted, out loud and on the record, that his party took the full faith and credit of the United States hostage, demanded a ransom, and they fully intend to do it again.

    Given all of this, it's rather bizarre for Republicans to complain about being equated with terrorists. As Dave Weigel noted yesterday, "If you don't want your opponent to label you a hostage-taker, here's an idea: Don't take hostages."

    I'll just add that we've had a set of ideas endemic in popular culture that excuse McConnell's behavior, even his terminology. In particular, the notion that the end justifies the means. One can cite many historical examples, even way before the annihilation of Hiroshima, and many more since, highlights including the 1953 coup in Iran, the "destroy the village to save it" war in Vietnam, the whole Iran-Contra fiasco, the killing of Osama bin Laden. Still, those aren't the things that stick in popular memory. For that you need something like Vince Lombardi's "winning is the only thing." You need the long line of movies where we depend on more and more degraded and unscrupulous characters to do our bidding -- one can view The Dirty Dozen as a redemption tale, but actually it just cracked the door open. So now McConnell's brag touts his romance with criminality. And while some people may feign to find that shocking, they really haven't been paying close attention. The truth is all that and more.

  • Steve Benen: Causing Calculated Contraction: Starts with a quote from Alex Castellanos ("a prominent Republican media consultant") on why "we can't borrow forever," and therfore why we can't borrow at all.

    When it comes to economic policy, Castellanos' case is wrong in just about every conceivable way. Indeed, his concerns reflect a reality that bears no resemblance to our own, since the United States is able to borrow money cheaply and easily, and should do just that to help create more demand in the domestic economy. For that matter, the Greece comparisons are gibberish. [ . . . ]

    I tend to think this is dangerously absurd, but putting that aside, Castellanos and I fully agree on the underlying point: the Republicans' economic agenda intends to make matters worse, on purpose, right now. With a weak economy and high unemployment, conservatives believe economic "contraction" is a worthwhile, short-term goal.

    Americans who endorse this Republican approach are arguing, in effect, that policymakers should deliberately undermine economic growth and job creation, in the hopes that conditions will eventually improve after the right's agenda has worked its magic.

    Even if you don't understand the economics (and clearly lots of people don't), one way you can tell the Republican line is bogus is to ask yourself: when has anyone purporting to represent American business in the last 30-40 years ever put long-term considerations ahead of short-term profits?

  • Steve Benen: A Timeline of Events: Starts with Ronald Reagan running for president and promising a balanced budget, then adding $2 trillion debt during his two terms:

    • 2000: George W. Bush runs for president, promising to maintain a balanced budget.
    • 2001: CBO shows the United States is on track to pay off the entirety of its national debt within a decade.
    • 2001 - 2009: With support from congressional Republicans, Bush runs enormous deficits, adds nearly $5 trillion to the debt.
    • 2002: Dick Cheney declares, "Deficits don't matter." Congressional Republicans agree, approving tax cuts, two wars, and Medicare expansion without even trying to pay for them.
    • 2009: Barack Obama inherits $1.3 trillion deficit from Bush; Republicans immediately condemn Obama's fiscal irresponsibility.
    • 2009: Congressional Democrats unveil several domestic policy initiatives -- including health care reform, cap and trade, DREAM Act -- which would lower the deficit. GOP opposes all of them, while continuing to push for deficit reduction.
    • September 2010: In Obama's first fiscal year, the deficit shrinks by $122 billion. Republicans again condemn Obama's fiscal irresponsibility.
    • October 2010: S&P endorses the nation's AAA rating with a stable outlook, saying the United States looks to be in solid fiscal shape for the foreseeable future.
    • November 2010: Republicans win a U.S. House majority, citing the need for fiscal responsibility.
    • December 2010: Congressional Republicans demand extension of Bush tax cuts, relying entirely on deficit financing. GOP continues to accuse Obama of fiscal irresponsibility.
    • March 2011: Congressional Republicans declare intention to hold full faith and credit of the United States hostage -- a move without precedent in American history -- until massive debt-reduction plan is approved.
    • July 2011: Obama offers Republicans a $4 trillion debt-reduction deal. GOP refuses, pushes debt-ceiling standoff until the last possible day, rattling international markets.
    • August 2011: S&P downgrades U.S. debt, citing GOP refusal to consider new revenues. Republicans rejoice and blame Obama for fiscal irresponsibility.

    There have been several instances since the mid 1990s in which I genuinely believed Republican politics couldn't possibly get more blisteringly ridiculous. I was wrong; they just keep getting worse.

    Benen expands on this in a later post, The Worst Thing the GOP Has Ever Done?:

    Where would the GOP's hostage fiasco rank on the list of modern Republican misdeeds?

    The list, alas, isn't brief. We could go through Hoover's failures of the late 1920s, or perhaps Joe McCarthy's crusade in the 1950s. Nixon's crimes in the early 1970s are legendary, as are the many Reagan-era scandals -- Iran-Contra, criminal fiasco at H.U.D., the Savings & Loan debacle -- of the 1980s.

    The more contemporary offenses are no doubt fresher in everyone's minds: the Gingrich/Dole government shutdowns, the Clinton impeachment debacle, the Bush v. Gore scandal, the politicization of the Justice Department, the Plame scandal, the fiscal recklessness, the financial industry negligence that contributed to the 2008 crash, etc.

    And while I'm open to suggestion on this, I still think there's something unique about the Republicans holding the full faith and credit of the United States hostage, threatening to impose a catastrophe on all of us, on purpose, to achieve a specific (and unnecessary) policy goal. What's more, note that no elected GOP officials -- literally, not one -- ever stood up during this process to say, "Wait, this is wrong. We shouldn't do this." They all just went along.

  • Andrew Leonard: The Next Horrible Budget Showdown: Actually, there's a whole menu of options for recapitupating the last few months of Republican extortion, and Leonard left out the FAA, which is already ongoing. The gas tax is a particularly juicy one: after all, who needs roads? Go read the piece if you want to know.

    And remember, September's skirmishes are only a prelude to 2012's showdown on defense and Medicare spending, with the added fun of an ongoing presidential campaign to make sure everyone's rhetorical muscles are in the finest possible fettle.

    Remember George Orwell's line from "1984"? Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already promised that there will never be a clean debt ceiling hike again; the new status quo is that everything that can be treated as an opportunity for extortion must be treated as an opportunity for extortion.

    It's the forever budget war.

  • Andrew Leonard: Market Meltdown Deja Vu: Written before the end of Thursday's stock market crash (cites the drop as 271 points at 1 PM; the final drop was 512):

    And all of this is happening after a month in which Congress and the White House occupied themselves by hammering out a deficit reduction plan for which the best-case scenario is that, in the short-term, it will only slow U.S. economic growth down a little bit.

    The worst-case scenario? We're looking right at it. For very good reasons, the global investor community has concluded that the United States is either unwilling or powerless (or both) to take any aggressive steps to counteract a growing economic slump. Remember the fearsome bond vigilantes? Right now they are gibbering in fear in the basement, stocking up on bottled water. [ . . . ]

    But there's actually a big difference between now and three years ago. Three years ago, governments around the world took strong action to counteract financial panic and the slide toward a new Great Depression. We can and will debate the merits, design and implementation of those actions -- TARP and the Obama stimulus, the reliance on tax cuts at the expense of direct infrastructure spending, etc. -- but at the time, there was a majority consensus that government should attempt to do something.

    But now the game has changed. There will be no new fiscal stimulus. The European Union may be scrambling to figure out how to bail out its constituent members, but it is difficult to imagine the U.S. assisting in any major effort to stabilize markets, outside of another effort by the Fed to inject even more liquidity into the system. The critics who argued that the best solution to the crisis of 2008 was to let beleaguered financial institutions crash and burn may get their chance this time around. After the Budget Control Act of 2011, the U.S. government has essentially handcuffed itself to a chair.

    At day's end, Leonard followed up with: The Roots of Thursday's Market Meltdown:

    The failure of the U.S. political system to properly address a slowing economy is surely an important underlying factor propelling Thursday's sell-off. But let's not underestimate the extent to which Europe's ongoing sovereign debt crisis is responsible for the fear and panic spreading like wildfire throughout investor circles. Maybe it's just as simple as this: The resolution of the debt ceiling ridiculousness cleared space for the world to focus on what's going on in Europe. And now that we're paying attention, we really, really, don't like what we see. The parallels to the credit crunch of 2008 get stronger every day. Capitalism, having been denied the opportunity for utter self-immolation three years ago, is eating itself alive, again. [ . . . ]

    The same goes for Italy, the world's seventh largest economy. The big scary news this week is that "contagion" has spread from the little guy to the big. Bond investors are now questioning whether Italy and Spain can pay off their government debt. Rumors that Italy may be forced down the Greek path are flying through the markets. As a consequence, the yields that investors will accept for buying new Greek or Italian debt are rising sharply, which further raises government borrowing costs and makes Italy and Spain's fiscal situation that much more disastrous. To complicate matters even more, the biggest holders of government debt in Europe are big Europeans banks, who are watching their own balance sheets deteriorate by the day.

    The self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating aspects of this dynamic are obvious. Bond traders get nervous about government finances, and start pushing markets in directions that make government finances degrade further. And so on. When government leaders point this out, pledging their "sound economic fundamentals," their self-serving avowals just act as another message telling traders to sell!

  • Alex Pareene: Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer Fundraise on Norway Attack:

    As a writer, it sure sucks when someone murders a bunch of people based on your ideas. (I mean, I assume that sucks. Weirdly, it's never happened to me.) So you can understand why right-wing anti-Islam bloggers are all being kind of defensive, these days.

    Anders Breivik, the anti-Islam terrorist who killed 77 people in Norway on July 22, read a lot of American anti-Islam bloggers, many of whom he cited in his lengthy manifesto. Breivik's favorites included Robert Spencer, a self-proclaimed expert on Islam whose "Jihad Watch" blog was quoted and cited in Breivik's manifesto, and Spencer's ally and collaborator Pam Geller, whose "Atlas Shrugs" was similarly recommended by the killer. [ . . . ]

    They are now actually fundraising on the fact that they helped inspire a massacre. Or more accurately, they're begging for money to protect them from the imaginary witch hunt that they claim the liberals will mount. (Is this part of the witch hunt? I am always confused about whether I'm witch-hunting or not, when I call people horrid hateful bigots.) Spencer also signed Geller's fundraising blog, and if you donate more than $500 to Atlas Shrugs, ThinkProgress reports, they will send you a signed copy of Geller's book, Stop the Islamization of America: A Practical Guide to the Resistance.

  • Alex Pareene: The Baffling Paranoia of Rich Guys Who Resent Obama: Interview with Ken Langone, co-founder of Home Depot, former head of the New York Stock Exchange, and all-around rich guy:

    Ken Langone wants higher taxes on rich people. He wants the debt ceiling raised. And he wants his taxes raised. And he wants tax loopholes closed. And he wants government investment in education and job training. In other words, he is, in the current political environment, basically a liberal socialist Democrat? He is more or less aligned with Paul Krugman here. Obama wants all of these things, too!

    Except Langone has a big problem with the politician who shares all of his major economic policy goals: That politician is also mean to rich people. [ . . . ]

    OK, so . . . this is just pure cultural baggage with no relation to observable reality. Langone is upset that the president is not sufficiently "respectful" to John Boehner, he's outraged that the president appeared in shirt-sleeves in the Oval Office, and he's upset about a two-year-old reference to "fat cats." Langone wants his taxes raised and tax loopholes closed, but he's upset that the president briefly campaigned on . . . closing a private jet tax loophole.

    So, there is an extensive fact-check of the Reagan jacket thing, but it doesn't need a fact-checking, it needs psychoanalysis.

    Yes, Americans are all ideologically confused. Voters like liberal policies but vote for divided government. Thomas Friedman dreams of a technocratic center-left third party without realizing he's dreaming of the Democratic Party. But Langone crying about the president's lack of respect and then wishing for Chris Christie to run isn't just ideological confusion, it's the pathology of the ultra-wealthy under imaginary siege.

    Guys like Langone should be thankful there aren't mobs with pitchforks out there, but instead of recognizing that Obama's their best friend in the country, they're dreaming that there are mobs, and that this awful populist president is leading them. Imaginary president Black Huey Long haunts them. People like Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein, who should probably be in jail, are convinced the president who pissed away a significant chunk of his popularity by giving Wall Street all the money it needed to get back on its feet after crippling the world economy is a socialist bent on their destruction.

By the way, we saw Horrible Bosses yesterday. It has a slight warped universe effect, with job holders even more terrified of losing their jobs than in the present economy, but there have been many cases in US history where workers were as utterly owned by their bosses as the three protagonists here -- even if we skip over chattel slavery, although that's a pretty big one (and still seems to be much admired in parts of the country, as Michael Lind keeps pointing out). Some funny stuff; some ineptly stupid. My takeaway: we need more unions. Even if the sales exec and the floor manager weren't represented, the company's experience of having to deal with unions would curb such excesses and give workers options other than snuffing their bosses -- which in some ways would even proven to be win-win for the bosses, don't you think?

I'm also reminded of the evils of nepotism, and why I think estate taxes should approach confiscatory levels approaching the top. I had a similar experience long ago, when I worked in a printing company run successfully by a sensitive, thoughtful founder (like Donald Sutherland here), who wound up leaving the company to his idiot son (not nearly as vicious as Colin Farrell here, but nearly as self-centered and equally dim), who drove the business into the ground (a few years after I bailed out, so I don't know the gory details). Since then I've had plenty of opportunities to observe nepotism, especially in the Bush family, and it's pretty rare when it works out.

Of course, I wouldn't have such businesses confiscated by the government, either to be run or to be auctioned off. I'd like to see a system which transfers ownership to the employees who worked for and built up the business. You could give the business a moderate evaluation, give the employees stock with liens based on the evaluation (to be paid off when the stock was sold, or written off if the stock is sold at a loss), and let the business go on its merry way. And if the employees decide to keep the founder's son, well, maybe he's OK, or at least he'll be better behaved.

Poor Standards

On Friday, August 5, 2011, following the debt-limit deal that saved the financial world (and maybe your job) one of the big three financial ratings agencies, Standard & Poor's, went through with its threat and downgraded US Treasury debt from AAA to AA+. What this means in practical terms isn't immediately clear, although in theory if people actually took S&P seriously they would demand higher interest for buying US Treasuries to offset their higher risk, which would in turn drive up interest rates across the board -- especially for things like home mortgages -- which would in turn both increase federal debt and greatly depress the economy. Still, while companies like S&P have had a major impact convincing investors that subprime mortgage bonds are AAA investments, their ratings on sovereign debt have been widely ignored in the past -- e.g., downgrading Japan in the early 1990s had no discernible effect on ultralow interest rates there. As Andrew Leonard, S&P to the U.S.: Your Credit Is No Good, writes:

There are great paradoxes inherent in this move. During these troubled times, United States Treasury bonds are still currently considered one of safest places to put your money in the world. And that may continue -- the black humor traded by financial journalists is already flying. As CNBC's John Carney tweeted, "Can't wait for headline: Treasuries Rally As Investors Flee to Safety Following Downgrade."

The practical impact of this downgrade may not immediately change anything -- U.S. Treasuries will still be desirable in an uncertain world.

Republicans will use this downgrade as a club to beat Obama, but S&P's actual press release blames Congress without quite explicitly fingering the obvious culpability of the House Republicans. Leonard quotes the report:

More broadly, the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011.

Since then, we have changed our view of the difficulties in bridging the gulf between the political parties over fiscal policy, which makes us pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the Administration to be able to leverage their agreement this week into a broader fiscal consolidation plan that stabilizes the government's debt dynamics any time soon.

Josh Marshall quotes another more explicit excerpt:

Compared with previous projections, our revised base case scenario now assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, due to expire by the end of 2012, remain in place. We have changed our assumption on this because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues, a position we believe Congress reinforced by passing the act.

Even if the S&P downgrade is ineffective at destroying the economy, it unnecessarily muddies the waters, which makes it all the more unclear whether US voters will recognize that electing a Republican House majority in 2010 was an act of insanity, one they should never afford to repeat.

As usual, Paul Krugman gives us the clearest overview:

On one hand, there is a case to be made that the madness of the right has made America a fundamentally unsound nation. And yes, it is the madness of the right: if not for the extremism of anti-tax Republicans, we would have no trouble reaching an agreement that would ensure long-run solvency.

On the other hand, it's hard to think of anyone less qualified to pass judgment on America than the rating agencies. The people who rated subprime-backed securities are now declaring that they are the judges of fiscal policy? Really?

Just to make it perfect, it turns out that S&P got the math wrong by $2 trillion, and after much discussion conceded the point -- then went ahead with the downgrade.

More than that, everything I've heard about S&P's demands suggests that it's talking nonsense about the US fiscal situation. The agency has suggested that the downgrade depended on the size of agreed deficit reduction over the next decade, with $4 trillion apparently the magic number. Yet US solvency depends hardly at all on what happens in the near or even medium term: an extra trillion in debt adds only a fraction of a percent of GDP to future interest costs, so a couple of trillion more or less barely signifies in the long term. What matters is the longer-term prospect, which in turn mainly depends on health care costs.

So what was S&P even talking about? Presumably they had some theory that restraint now is an indicator of the future -- but there's no good reason to believe that theory, and for sure S&P has no authority to make that kind of vague political judgment.

In short, S&P is just making stuff up -- and after the mortgage debacle, they really don't have that right.

So this is an outrage -- not because America is A-OK, but because these people are in no position to pass judgment.

Later on, in The Arithmetic of Near-term Deficits and Debt, Krugman calculated the actual cost of assuming more debt now that he dismissed above as "barely signifies in the long term":

Start with interest rates. What matters for debt sustainability is the real interest rate, since what matters is keeping real debt, not nominal debt, from growing. (World War II debt never got paid off, it just eroded in real terms to the point where it was trivial). As of yesterday, the US government could lock in 30-year bonds at a real interest rate of 1.25%. That means that a trillion dollars in extra debt would mean $12.5 billion a year in additional real interest payments.

Meanwhile, the CBO estimates potential real GDP in 2021 at about $18 trillion in 2005 dollars, or around $19 trillion in 2011 dollars.

Put these together, and they say that an extra trillion in borrowing adds something like 0.07% of GDP in future debt service costs. Yes, that zero belongs there. The $4 trillion S&P said it needed to see clocks in at less than 0.3% of GDP.

Krugman's adjustment of 2021 GDP to 2011 dollars looks wrong (unless he's projecting deflation instead of inflation, in which case we have far bigger problems than S&P -- it says not only that the economy will tank but that austerity measures will keep it there for a decade at least, and that government will do nothing about it, all of which is kind of like saying Michelle Bachmann will be a two-term president), but the point is that the bottom line number is small. You may not be able to afford taking on more debt right now, but the US government can, especially if we had a good reason to do so -- i.e., a better reason than littering Afghanistan with crashing helicopters, or subsidizing the rich in their neverending struggle to find profits without improving the livelihood of the people who live (and used to work) here.

As for S&P's $2 trillion arithmetic error, Krugman again:

Oh, my. Treasury has a fact sheet explaining that $2 trillion error by S&P; it may sound technical, but to anyone who follows budget issues, it's a doozy. [ . . . ]

But S&P initially assumed that the debt deal was subtracting off a quite different baseline.

The point here is not so much the $2 trillion, which makes very little difference to real US fiscal prospects; it's the fact that S&P stands revealed as not understanding basic analysis of budget estimates. I mean, I don't think I would have made that mistake; real budget experts, like the people at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, certainly wouldn't have.

So what we just saw was amateur hour. And these people are pronouncing on US credit-worthiness?

As for why S&P is even doing this, whereas Krugman rather charitably charges them with incompetence, Sen. Bernie Sanders is more explicit:

I find it interesting to see S&P so vigilant now in downgrading the U.S. credit rating. Where were they four years ago when they, and other credit rating agencies, helped cause this horrendous recession by providing AAA ratings to worthless sub-prime mortgage securities on behalf of Wall Street investment firms? Where were they last December when Congress and the White House drove up the national debt by $700 billion by extending Bush's tax breaks for the rich?

Well, he could be even more explicit. S&P and the two other big ratings agencies blessed all those subprime mortgage derivatives with AAA ratings because they were paid to by the banks issuing the derivatives. The competitive atmosphere even allowed the banks to shop around for favorable ratings, which led to an escalating cycle of brain rot and corruption. So if the Treasury really doesn't like S&P's rating, they can probably fix it by tucking a little cash into the company's account. (Or maybe the Tea Party got there first?)

Wichita's rookie House Republican, Mike Pompeo, had an editorial in the Eagle today, titled In Defense of Debt-Ceiling 'Extortion':

I voted last week for the Budget Control Act of 2011. In return, freshmen like me who demanded an end to ever-increasing spending were called "tea party terrorists," "extortionists" and "hostage takers."

Why such hostility? Because, for the first time ever, as a condition for raising the debt ceiling, House Republicans forced the president to accept spending cuts greater than the increase in the debt ceiling -- a very modest requirement that will ultimately lower the ceiling.

The law also caps future spending, does not raise taxes, and clears the way for up-or-down votes on both a balanced-budget amendment and cuts in "mandatory" programs that make up most federal spending. These changes scare the establishment witless.

As you can see, he really gets off on all this extortion, hostage taking, terror -- scaring the establishment witless. Still, "establishment" is a funny term for the elderly who depend on Medicare, the disabled who depend on Social Security, the poor who depend on Medicaid, or working people who depend on this country having a functioning economy. With demagogues like Pompeo around, they indeed have much to be scared of.

Although just as pointedly, they should be worried about the people allegedly on their side. Also on the Eagle editorial page was a Pro-Con "Is debt-ceiling deal good for economy?" Representing the Pro side was no goon like Pompeo; it was Obama's Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner:

It was a terrible process but a good result.

The agreement creates room for the private sector to continue to grow, without the threat of default and the burden of higher interest rates.

It locks in at least $2 trillion in long-term savings from cuts in government spending, but those savings are phased in gradually to avoid hurting the economy in the near term.

The Con position, by the way, was from Peter Morici, who wrote:

The president and the tea party got their victories, but Americans will remain besieged by slow growth, high unemployment, stagnant wages and a government too expensive for its citizens to bear.

Pretty explicit that Obama and the Tea Party are on the same team. So where does that leave us?

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Recycled Goods (88): August 2011

Pick up text here.

Update: Changed CTI label from CTI/Sony Masterworks to CTI/Masterworks Jazz, to match the imprint on the labels. Also a minor edit in the In Series introduction.

Friday, August 05, 2011

A Downloader's Diary (13): August 2011

Insert text from here.

This is the thirteenth installment, monthly since August 2010, totalling 328 albums. All columns are indexed and archived here. You can follow A Downloader's Diary on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Expert Comments

Milo Miles told a story about writing a New York Dolls review for Creem and having it rejected in favor of a Christgau review (Lester Bangs wanted to run his piece, but Dave Marsh vetoed Bangs).

Following Milo, I can relate my own Creem rejection story. Don't remember what the review was, but the rejection letter from Lester Bangs is in a box in the basement. He listed a bunch of things he knew about me (most wrong), told me to stop trying to write like a drug-addled synthesis of Christgau and himself, then expressed interest if I could come up with something "in a more moderate vein."

Don't recall whether it was earlier or later, but one time I visited a friend in Ann Arbor, and decided to drive over to Birmingham and drop in on the Creem office. I did, but never got past the receptionist, and no one expressed any interest in talking to me. That evening I phoned Christgau (or vice versa) and he told me that his sister and Wayne Robbins (who was editor at the time; Georgia had graduated from typesetter to movie critic there) wanted to meet me. And the next day they drove out to Ann Arbor.

Nothing came of me writing for Creem. Next thing I knew all three of them had moved to New York. I met Bangs the first day I arrived in New York, but hardly ever saw him after that. The one party I recall bumping into him at my girlfriend talked to him much more than I did -- or maybe it was the other way around. Then he died, and that was that.

Milo quoted the "my girlfriend" line and added:

The latter was certainly my experience (though it was girls in general, not my girlfriend). I spent one very long day with Bangs, from 10 AM to 3AM, while he was on a promotional tour for the Blondie book. The most brilliant thing he did was in this hole of a back room at "The Rat" punk-rock club in Kenmore Square, Boston. I can't remember the band who had played, but we were sitting around in the dressing room, shot and slack, when a photographer -- for some top-level fanzine, ho-hum -- stepped in and wanted some snaps.

Lester immediately went into action -- "C'mon guys, good times! Good times!" -- mugging and miming in an irresistible way that had everybody laughing in a few seconds as though we were having a ripping party in a latrine bucket. And the resulting pix looked super. Fun Backstage with Legend Lester Bangs.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Weather Report

Got a break in the weather yesterday: after a high of 104F, some initially small thunderstorms formed in southwest Kansas, and by 10PM they amassed into a pretty huge one. It hit Wichita with straightline winds in excess of 70MPH, dumping heavy rain and a smattering of hail on the city. Looked pretty ferocious when it blew through here, with small limbs ripping off and slamming into the house, and sheets of rain sometimes splashing buckets-full of water straight at the window. Still, no big problem here until it started to let up a bit and the electricity failed. This was about the time the storm hit the near east side of town: most of the major photo-worthy damage followed a line along Hillside from Wichita State University, where a 35-foot tree was plucked up and flung against the side of a building, to south of Kellogg where a couple of roofs were peeled off the tops of houses.

Not much to do around here with no electricity. The computers and the stereo are all on UPS units, so we shut them down gracefully, then pulled out some flashlights and tried to read a bit. We got power back after a little more than an hour, and started to put things back together but ten minutes later it failed again. An hour-plus later the power came back again, but only for a couple minutes. That happened again later, then around 3:30AM it came up and held for a while, until falling down again around 5AM. That time it was only down for a few minutes, and after it returned it stabilized (either that or I finally slept through the rest). No real damage here, but I gather that throughout the city there were dozens of power lines blown down, and for that matter dozens of traffic light poles. No idea how many trees, or how many buildings were damaged.

We did at least get some rain: 2.25 inches, enough to reduce the deficit on the year by about one-third. And it was a bit cooler today, at least in the morning. (The Eagle is reporting that the high temperature was 104F, but I didn't notice it over 98F today.) More storms were forecast today, but none came (yet: radar shows a big, nasty-looking string in far west Kansas). Friday forecast is for 99F; following week is all 100F+, with or without scattered storms. For all the bad weather we've had, last night was the hardest.

Update: The Wichita Eagle this morning said the high was 95F yesterday. I believe they get their figures from the weather station at the airport. My WeatherUnderground reports come from a station at 25th and Amidon in northwest Wichita, which is a bit closer to where we live. The latter station has tended to run a bit hotter lately; e.g., it's reading 99.9F now, whereas the weather feed to my computer is reading 93F (but may be delayed; at 2:36PM it's still warming up).

Expert Comments

Christgau website issue (quote from Cyclops703):

As long as I "have you on the line", why is it that albums in the main database that have been regraded no longer carry a bracketed notice of "later "?

Those are in the CG column files. In virtually every case they are records that were given revised reviews in a subsequent CG book. (You'll notice that this happened a lot more often in the 1970s.) There are a mere handful since 2000 -- the first NERD, the first LCD Soundsystem, the Very Best come to mind -- where a record got a second shot in a later CG column. There would, of course, be more if there was a post-2000 book, although I don't recall there being a lot in the 1990s book.

Cyclops703 again, another website matter:

One thing that would be neat if it could be implemented is for the artist search to be a little more forgiving of misspellings, missing words in the name, etc.

Fuzzy word searches are really hard to do, at least well, and given the way the software is layered would have to be pushed down toward the database to be at all efficient, which isn't practical for me to do (i.e., I don't have that level of control over the server). PHP has support for soundex (which doesn't strike me as useful at all) and Levenshtein (which might be useful but is reportedly real slow, all the more so when you factor in that I'd have to pull everything from the database before processing each search).

I rarely have a problem with the CG search, which may partly be because I know how it works. I usually do two searches, one against the literal artist name, the second against a sort key constructed from the artist name. I hack caps to lower case, and squeeze out spaces and (I think) punctuation (at least on the second search), and look for substrings when exact matches fail. If you do have trouble, try shortening the search string; hopefully you'll get a list to pick from then.

I haven't touched the htdig search engine ("Text Search") since I installed it. I don't use it much, haven't heard many complaints, and don't have it configured locally so it's mostly out of sight and out of mind. I do worry that it will fall down completely some day. The software is still around, presumably evolved. I should do more with it, but like I said.

A few nights ago I figured out how to add a third search box to query google, so that will be included in the next update. It's pretty basic (not the commercial package they sell), but may help, especially as it builds on stuff you (presumably) already know.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Courting Disaster

There's an article in the Wichita Eagle this morning speculating on whether today would break the all-time high temperature record here in Wichita, KS. Forecast calls for 113F, and the record, from the hellacious summer of 1936, was 114F, so it won't take much of a stretch. (As of 2PM it's 110F, so it's pretty close to on track.) The lowest high in the seven day forecast is 99F on August 8, but they usually hedge back to seasonal norms the further out they go. We're in a drought, too, about six inches down for the year, which works out to about -35%. The winter wheat has been harvested and wasn't anything to brag about. The corn's taking a beating, and is likely to be popped off the cobb by the time this summer is over. But the most apocalyptic sign is most of the lakes in Kansas -- and thanks to the dambuilders we have quite a few -- have been closed due to algae blooms: the iconic picture this year is dead fish floating in gunky scum. In 1936, which drove Kansas so stir-crazy they voted a Democratic landslide, we had 40 days topping 100F. We're close to 30 now, and August is just beginning, so that record, which seemed incredible a few months ago, now looks like a sure thing. Too bad there are no Democrats left in Kansas these days. Obama gave the last of them Washington jobs, so they're cooling their heels elsewhere.

Some of this we can just suffer through. It will cool off in late September, or October. Whether the rains return is harder to say: in normal times winters are dry and spring is lush (albeit dangerous), but two or three drougt years in a row would have a huge impact. We already depend a lot on Lake Cheney for water, and it's one of those aforementioned algae ponds. Of course, the farmers will have a rough time. In southwest Kansas the difference between now and the 1930s is irrigation, but the Ogalalla Aquifer is rapidly being drained and in a few decades a quarter of the state will revert to dessert. Whether that translates to dust storms depends on how smart we are about managing the transition, but a glance at the global warming debate suggests we're not very smart at all. Like the debt limit crisis, the biggest problem is the obduracy of the denialists and their uncanny political clout. But unlike the debt limit crisis, there is no simple solution, and there may be no solution at all. I'm not one to get all apocalyptic about climate change. I figure there are always ways to adjust, not least is to get the hell out of Dodge. (Dodge City, by the way, seems to be booming now -- at least if you don't mind perfumed manure and flies -- but most likely will be a ghost town by 2040.)

But the global warming crisis doesn't have a "drop dead" date to focus frenzied efforts at a solution. (At least not a date in the near future; the opportunity to make relatively painless plans to reduce CO2 to a stable 350 ppm is well past.) But the debt limit crisis at least came with the courtesy of a firm must-take-action date: today. That was because this was an entirely synthetic political crisis. The fact that there even was such a limit was a fluke of history. That the House Republicans could use this threat to leverage their agenda over nominal Democratic control of the Senate and White House was an unprecedented and brazen power grab. That they got away with it shows you just how unprincipled and inept President Obama has become. Still, it's no surprise that in the end the Republicans came to terms. They like to think of themselves as the party of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich, and in the end nobody had more to lose from default than the rich -- especially both parties favorite lobby, the banking industry. (Don't tell AIPAC.) I've been highlighting links on this for months now, and have a few more since Sunday. But especially in this heat I don't expect them to keep until next Sunday, so I figured I should kick them out now.

Paul Krugman: The President Surrenders:

Did the president have any alternative this time around? Yes.

First of all, he could and should have demanded an increase in the debt ceiling back in December. When asked why he didn't, he replied that he was sure that Republicans would act responsibly. Great call.

And even now, the Obama administration could have resorted to legal maneuvering to sidestep the debt ceiling, using any of several options. In ordinary circumstances, this might have been an extreme step. But faced with the reality of what is happening, namely raw extortion on the part of a party that, after all, only controls one house of Congress, it would have been totally justifiable.

At the very least, Mr. Obama could have used the possibility of a legal end run to strengthen his bargaining position. Instead, however, he ruled all such options out from the beginning.

But wouldn't taking a tough stance have worried markets? Probably not. In fact, if I were an investor I would be reassured, not dismayed, by a demonstration that the president is willing and able to stand up to blackmail on the part of right-wing extremists. Instead, he has chosen to demonstrate the opposite.

Make no mistake about it, what we're witnessing here is a catastrophe on multiple levels.

It is, of course, a political catastrophe for Democrats, who just a few weeks ago seemed to have Republicans on the run over their plan to dismantle Medicare; now Mr. Obama has thrown all that away. And the damage isn't over: there will be more choke points where Republicans can threaten to create a crisis unless the president surrenders, and they can now act with the confident expectation that he will.

In the long run, however, Democrats won't be the only losers. What Republicans have just gotten away with calls our whole system of government into question. After all, how can American democracy work if whichever party is most prepared to be ruthless, to threaten the nation's economic security, gets to dictate policy? And the answer is, maybe it can't.

For more Krugman, with video, see: Natasha Lennard: Krugman: America Is Heading for a "Lost Decade". The "lost decade" line, in case you don't know, refers to the 1990s in Japan which never managed to get back on track after their 1980s real estate bubble burst. Krugman's study of Japan in the 1990s led him to write The Return of Depression Economics in 1999, which is later revised in 2008 to remind us he told us so.

Andrew Leonard's take was much the same, down to titling his post President Obama's Surrender.

Meanwhile, see Steve Benen: The Contrarian Defense for a survey of liberal arguments trying to rationalize the deal as something less than awful. Good luck with those. One may be stuck with Obama, but that's no reason to make nice.

Some more scattered links:

  • Tom Engelhardt: Lowering America's War Ceiling?:

    Meanwhile back in Washington -- not, mind you, the Washington of the debt-ceiling crisis, but the war capital on the banks of the Potomac -- national security spending still seems to be on an upward trajectory. At $526 billion (without the costs of the Afghan and Iraq wars added in), the 2011 Pentagon budget is, as Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan, has written, "in real or inflation adjusted dollars . . . higher than at any time since World War II, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the height of the Reagan buildup." The 2012 Pentagon budget is presently slated to go even higher. [ . . . ]

    In little of the reporting on this was it apparent that Obama's $400 billion in Pentagon "cuts" are not cuts at all -- not unless you consider an obese person, who continues eating at the same level but reduces his dreams of ever grander future repasts, to be on a diet. The "cuts" in the White House proposal, that is, will only be from projected future Pentagon growth rates. Nor were the "savings" of up to one trillion dollars over a decade being projected by Senator Harry Reid as part of his deficit-reduction plan cuts either, not in the usual sense anyway. They are expected savings based largely on the prospective winding down of America's wars and, like so much funny money, could evaporate with the morning dew. (In his last minute deal with John Boehner, President Obama's Pentagon "savings" have, in fact, been reduced to a provisional $350 billion over 10 years.)

    The prospect of military cuts -- indeed, of rolling back the imperial mission that critics like Chalmers Johnson have long been warning will bankrupt the US -- does seem to be more exposed than ever. What's lacking is the broad change of understanding of America's role. I recall when Obama promised to change how we think about war, but thus far the only opinion he's changed has been his own.

  • James K Galbraith: Why the Senate Should Reject the Debt Ceiling Deal:

    The debt deal is bad economics, dishonest government, and surrender to blackmail. The alternative is not default, but government under the Constitution.

    On the economics: by slowly choking off public services, public investment and regulation, the deal sets the economy on a path to strangulation. Every dollar cut from the budget, now or later, is a dollar less of private income. Less private income means less consumption, less private business investment, fewer jobs. Tax revenues will fall, and the deficits and debt will in the end not be reduced. The so-called "cloud of debt" will not lift. Contrary to the foolish claim made by the White House today, there is no magic by which "lifting a cloud of uncertainty" produces growth. There is no confidence fairy.

    On dishonesty: the proposed cuts would reduce discretionary public spending as a share of GDP to what it was before the government had any major role in transportation, housing, education, safety, health, medical research or environmental protection. To where it was before the NIH or the CDC, before HUD, before the EPA, before OSHA, before the Department of Education. This is a false promise: those cuts cannot and will not be found. To promise them is to play to the gallery of the ignorant. [ . . . ]

    On blackmail: This deal validates the making of real policy under the appearance of extreme threats. That process will not end here. And while Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid escaped in the first round, they are set up to fall in the second. The deal creates a new junta to force those cuts before the end of this year. The process is repellent, cruel, undemocratic, and designed to leave blood on the ground but not on anyone's hands.

    And the alternative? Is it economic disaster? No.

    The alternative is not default. No crisis need ensue. The Constitution forbids default -- not only on debt but also on pensions and on every public obligation of the United States. The Constitution is not a last resort; the 14th amendment is not obscure. It is the fundamental law, written in plain English. Debts, pensions and other obligations must be paid.

  • William Hogeland: The Founding Fathers Would Have Hated the Debt Ceiling:

    The Constitution came about precisely to enable a newly large government -- a national one -- to tax all Americans for the specific purpose of funding a large public debt. Neither Alexander Hamilton nor his mentor the financier Robert Morris made any bones about that purpose; James Madison was among their closest allies; and Edmund Randolph of Virginia opened the Constitutional Convention by charging the delegates to redress the country's failure to fund -- not pay off, fund -- the public debt, by creating a national government.

  • Andrew Leonard: The Senate Puts on Its Debt Ceiling Happy Face:

    But even worse than the suffocating anticlimax was the feeling of dangerous pointlessness. Because even as congressional leaders and the president, amid their endless torrents of mutual recrimination, devoted countless hours in recent weeks to crafting a deficit reduction plan, economic conditions in the U.S. have been steadily deteriorating. We haven't had any surprises on the debt ceiling front since Sunday, but we have learned a couple of new things about the economy.

    On Monday, an index of manufacturing activity delivered its worst performance in two years. On Tuesday, the Commerce Department reported that consumer spending fell for the first time in 20 months.

    Both releases followed a Friday report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis that pegged GDP growth for the second quarter at a very low 1.3 percent.

    There is nothing in the debt ceiling bill that addresses the nation's current economic struggles. There's even a reasonable chance that the debt ceiling agreement's impact on the economy will increase future deficits. There's no better cure for expanding deficits than a growing economy, but the opposite is equally true. Because if the spending cuts mandated by the deal further weaken overall demand, and the economy slips back into recession, tax revenues will start to fall again.

  • Michael Lind: The Tea Party, the Debt Ceiling, and White Southern Extremism: Shouldn't be a big surprise that the Tea Party Caucus is mostly a club for neo-Confederate southern Republicans. The most relevant point here is that there has been a precedent for a faction in Congress to use extortion to bully the majority into coddling its peculiar obsessions:

    The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 and 1799 asserted the alleged right of states to "nullify" any federal law that state lawmakers considered unconstitutional. This obstructionist mentality led to the Nullification Crisis of 1832, when South Carolina refused to enforce federal tariffs. Civil War was averted only when President Andrew Jackson, a Southerner himself, forced the nullifiers to back down.

    In 1820 and 1850 the South used the threat of secession to force the rest of the United States to appease it on the slavery issue. In 1861, the South tried to destroy the United States, rather than accept a legitimately elected president, Abraham Lincoln, whom it did not control.

    Lind doesn't go into this, but nullification has returned as a pet theory of the far right. You can see why when you look at all the nutty laws state legislatures have passed since the 2010 election.

  • Alex Pareene: What the 2012ers' Debt-Deal Statements Actually Mean: Mitt Romney, of course, then Michelle Bachman, then on down the line.

    Michele Bachmann has been against everything Mitt Romney is against since before Mitt Romney is against it, of course. She opposes the deal, she opposed the old Boehner bill, she opposed raising the debt ceiling at all, and she opposed the notion that anything bad would happen if we didn't raise the debt ceiling. She opposes reality. [ . . . ]

    Ron Paul is against the plan because he's Ron Paul, and the debt ceiling plan did not involve eliminating the Fed and returning America to the "wooden teeth standard." If elected president, America will once again lead the world in freedom-per-capita. (And probably tuberculosis.)

    Newt Gingrich came out with a statement that managed to be long, detailed and completely meaningless. ("For instance, Strong America Now, led by Michael George, believes that $500 billion per year can be saved by applying Lean Six Sigma to the federal government.") [ . . . ]

    Herman Cain said . . . nothing, about the debt ceiling compromise plan? He might not understand it. Or he might not care about problems he can't blame on Muslims? Jon Huntsman said the deal "is a positive step toward cutting our nation's crippling debt." This means nothing because John Huntsman will never be president.

    Tim Pawlenty took the most extreme-right line of any candidate so far (the cut-cap-and-balance plan did not cut, cap, and balance enough for him!) but no one noticed or cared.

    By the way, Gingrich followed this up by declaring that the Obama administration is really "a Paul Krugman presidency": "[Obama believes that stuff. He actually believes in left-wing economic ideas. The only problem with them is that they don't work." Many people have commented on the real distance between Krugman and Obama. That's true, but with so many right-wingers equating Obama with Marx and Engels, the link to Krugman is rather kind. But the more important point is that, even though Krugman's liberalism is so consistent and principled that I'm inclined to regard him as a pretty good guy, his economics is pure textbook, thoroughly grounded in what does work and cognizant of what doesn't work. I fail to see how those ideas are even left-wing, except relative to a long line of right-wing hacks from Hayek to Friedman to a bunch of forgettable Chicago neocons whose track record, especially in full ideological mode, is nothing less than dismal.

  • Dean Baker: Will the US Credit Rating Be Downgraded?:

    This isn't an economic or philosophical question; it is a simple matter of logic. The United States borrows in dollars. The United States also issues dollars. How could the United States ever be in a situation where it can't get the dollars needed to pay off its debt? Apart from a debt ceiling debate, where Congress effectively forces a default for reasons that have nothing to do with the country's creditworthiness, it is pretty much impossible to see how the country could default.

    It could be argued that printing dollars would lead to inflation, which would reduce the value of Treasury bonds. While this may be true, if this is the criterion that the bond rating agencies are using to evaluate debt, then any expectation of increased inflation would necessarily imply a downgrade of all debt issued in dollars. However, none of the credit rating agencies are talking about an across-the-board downgrading of dollar-denominated debt.

    Before anyone gets too excited about the risk of a downgrade, they should have an idea of what they think it means. I have yet to see anyone provide a remotely coherent explanation of what the credit rating agencies would be saying if they downgraded US government debt.

    There are a lot of Wall Street finance and Washington policy types who desperately want to cut Social Security and Medicare. They are willing to lie, cheat, steal and spend tons of money to accomplish this goal. The threat of credit downgrade is a great piece of ammunition for this gang. We should torture them by insisting that they explain what it means before they can be taken seriously.

Haven't had time to look very far, but there's a lot here, and more to look at later. Also note that there will be more such extortion crises, especially since Obama has lost all of his bin Laden bump in the polls, making this look like a political as well as a practical Republican victory. Meanwhile, note that Congress left the FAA unfunded, forcing 4000 workers to be "furloughed" (laid off). Those are the folks responsible for making sure the airplanes millions of people travel in are safe, so it's only a matter of time until one drops out of the sky and people notice. What then?

Update: WeatherUnderground peaked out at 114.3F today in Wichita, dropping down to 110.8 as I'm wrapping this up. My Linux computer has a toolbar weather thingy that never topped 109F, and is now down to 108F. Will have to wait until tomorrow to get the official high temperature.

Update 2: The FAA story has finally risen to the lead at Talking Points Memo. Once again, the Democrats are prepared to cave in. Also added the Dean Baker item above.

Expert Comments

Quoting and responding to Cyclops703:

I mean, does anyone really need him to tell them that the NY Dolls released their weakest album by a very wide margin back in March?

Doesn't seem so obvious to me: I know I liked this year's album much more than its predecessor. Probably more than the reunion from 2006 that Bob went head over heels for. At this point it's a reasonable inference that Bob likes it less -- not like he's ever been bashful praising a Dolls album he likes. Why is another matter, but at some level it always is.

On Matt Taibbi (NickyF has been slamming him):

Before my mind wandered, I meant to say something in defense of Matt Taibbi.

I love Matt Taibbi, partly because he says things that should be said that hardly anyone else says, and partly because he is out there doing real investigative journalism. His stuff in Spanking the Donkey on the 2004 campaign is eye-opening, even more for what he finds in his fellow press than in the politicians -- how appropriate that he ends with his Wimblehack dissection. His stuff on right-wing Christians in The Great Derangement is also quite sharp (and hardly more incendiary than Chris Hedges' American Fascists). The financial stuff is harder to do well, but Griftopia covers all the major points and found at least one angle that no one else hit on: Goldman's manipulation of commodity markets. Sure, someone else could have done a defter job of eviscerating Alan Greenspan. But Hank Paulson is a guy who after assuming the role of a "public servant" he made sure that his former company's archrival was destroyed, then invented whole new rationales to pay off AIG's debts (especially to Goldman, exactly the sort of thing he claimed he had no authority to do with Lehman). If anything, Taibbi was too kind there.

Of course, if you're not familiar with how finance works (and often blows up) these days, there are a lot of other books to help you out. Charles Morris's The [Two] Trillion Dollar Meltdown (paperback edition added "Two" to the title) is a good primer. John Lanchester's IOU is especially good on how banking works. Nomi Prins's It Takes a Pillage and Yves Smith's Econned are probably the best overall -- the latter edging into economic theory (home ground for John Cassidy's When Markets Fail). I haven't read Jeff Madrick's Age of Greed but it's gotten good reviews for going back in history. Michael Lewis's Liar's Poker is old (he now describes it as "how quaint") gives you an idea of how it felt being a bond trader. (His newer The Big Short has some of that too, but tries to put a smiley face on the whole thing.) Kevin Phillips's prophetic Bad Money caught the leading edge of the crisis. Krugman hasn't done anything new book-length, probably because he's more interested in the recession than in what triggered it, although he did a quick edit on his prophetic 10-year-old book and extended the title to The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008. It's also a good time to get reacquainted with Keynes (see Robert Skidelsky's Keynes: The Return of the Master). I've read all of these (except Madrick) and a dozen more, but these are the choice cuts. By the way, they're all pretty mainstream, too. If you want a real left analysis, see David Harvey's The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (a very smart big-picture book, but expect a tough slog).

One thing some people keep lecturing us on is the need to write so your opponents can understand you, which Taibbi has a problem with. But the fact is that 80% (maybe more) of the stuff coming from the right is sheer gibberish unless you're a true believer, and that seems to work out pretty well for them. So I think that what Taibbi does has a place on our side. I know several people who slogged through Simon Johnson and Nouriel Roubini and such and then had it all make sense when they read Taibbi.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Music Week

Music: Current count 18471 [18463] rated (+8), 877 [850] unrated (+27). Aside from a tiny bit of prospecting, spent the entire week listening to previously rated Jazz CG records and writing up reviews. Happy to say that's done with and I can do something else for the next few weeks. Weather remains beyond miserable.

Jazz Prospecting (JCG #27, Part 13)

OK, my Jazz Consumer Guide (27) draft is essentially complete. I have 14 records in the top section, 35 in the HMs, 1591 words, one slam dunk pick hit, one semi-random pick hit (took the longest review of several more-or-less equivalently good records). Pushed off to next time: 15 top section, 27 HMs, 1426 words, plus quite a few graded but unwritten HMs (only two graded but unwritten A-). I have some paperwork to do on the transition. I have a bunch of HMs that I've dumped into the surplus file, so actually the "done" file is pretty slim right now (32 records; it's usually more like 80).

The Jazz Prospecting file for this round is here. I listened to 249 records while working on this column, plus had 84 carryovers from the previous round. By historical standards, that's relatively high -- the result of losing over a month to illness this summer. The incoming queue has 244 records, a bit more than usual. Seems like I get less mail than I used to, but this week's unpacking is much more than it's been in several months. Some of this is seasonal slump, so should pick up a bit in the fall. (I got my first October releases today.)

Not a lot of prospecting below, since I spent most of the week listening to previously graded records. I did manage to go back and re-listen to everything on my shelf with [ ] grades: two records moved up a notch, one down. Also some Rhapsody stuff below, which is pretty irrelevant to the Jazz CG column -- I don't consider Rhapsody streams (except for duds), but may find something worth seeking out a real copy of (e.g., Harrison Bankhead). I did, however, seek out the Lapin to get some perspective on his album with François Carrier, and I'm always curious about the others.

Next week (unless I take a break, but I'm finally feeling enough better that I doubt it) will start the cycle for Jazz CG (28). But I'll probably keep working through the "done" records and trimming the "surplus" while I'm on a roll. Plus sometime in the next week or so we should have A Downloader's Diary, Recycled Goods, and a bunch of Rhapsody Streamnotes. So stay tuned. Now that the world's been saved, enjoy some music. Especially before you find out what it's going to cost you.

Sunny Voices (1981-2008 [2009], Sunnyside): Label sampler, from a perennial contender for best jazz label of whatever year. Founded in 1982 by François Zalacain and Christine Berthet, the label's taste has always been eclectic, sometimes influenced by its ability to pick up records stranded in France. However, this sampler is limited to vocal tracks, where eclectic tastes turn into pretty idiosyncratic ones. Meredith D'Ambrosio has been on board from the beginning, and they picked up Jay Clayton in the mid-'90s; Jeanne Lee and Linda Sharrock appear via opportune reissues; most of the later tracks come from Europe or Latin America, and two (Ana Moura and Milton Nascimento) are picked up from Tim Ries' Stones World. I've heard slightly more than half of the albums (10 of 17) and don't especially recommend any. They flow rather painlessly here, but this isn't very useful. B-

Ezra Weiss: The Shirley Horn Suite (2010 [2011], Roark): Pianist, b. 1979, grew up in Arizona, studied in Oregon, wound up in New York. Fifth album since 2002. (I still have an earlier one, Alice in Wonderland: A Jazz Musical, wedged in my queue; something I should do something about.) A tribute to Shirley Horn, focusing more to her underrated piano than on her voice -- although the very similar sounding Shirley Nanette sings four songs (all Weiss originals). Weiss wrote five of nine pieces, taking the four covers as instrumentals for a tasteful piano trio. B+(***)

E.J. Antonio: Rituals in the Marrow: Recipe for a Jam Session (2010, Blue Zygo): Poet, grew up in Harlem, got a MBA from NYIT, she doesn't dislose any timeline other than that she first published in 2003. First album; I've seen mention of a book but Amazon doesn't have it. Words don't strike me with the clarity of Dan Raphael's record, but she scratches raw and her praise song gospel whoop on "Pullman Porter" registers strongly. Backed with bass pulse, Michael T.A. Thompson soundrhythium, and best of all Joe Giardullo's reeds -- mostly soprano sax to my ear. Gets better along the way, which may mean I need to give it more time, but it already makes a terrific contrast to the Raphael/Halley record. B+(***)

Lutalo "Sweet Lu" Olutosin: Tribute to Greatness (2010, Sweet Lu Music): Singer, from Gary, IN, based in DC after passing through Atlanta and the military. He grew up on gospel, but found his calling in vocalese, drawing on King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks and writing a little himself. Don't recognize the band, but Winfield Gaylor's sax helps. 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.

Alexey Lapin/Yury Yaremchuk: Anatomy of Sound (2010, SoLyd): Russian pianist, appears with François Carrier on Inner Spire so I thought I should check him out further. (Also has a new solo piano album on Leo, Parallels.) Yaremchuk is from the Ukraine; plays soprano sax (first three cuts) and bass clarinet (two more). Last two cuts offer a solo each, with Lapin engulfed in roiling chordal density where Yaremchuk spaces out the sounds of his bass clarinet. The improv together is on the ugly side of free, but picks up interest whenever they get faster and louder. B+(*) [Rhapsody]

Harris Eisenstadt: Canada Day II (2010 [2011], Songlines): Drummer, b. 1975 in Toronto; has been around -- New York, Los Angeles, Gambia -- winding up in Brooklyn, where he has close to ten records since 2002 and a growing reputation as a composer. Same group did Canada Day in 2008: Matt Bauder (tenor sax), Nate Wooley (trumpet), Chris Dingman (vibes), Eivind Opsvik (bass). The horns can spin free or play postbop harmony, but in either case the vibraphone offers both a soft sell and a lot of open space. Full of surprises which may or may not work; hard to tell in a single pass. B+(***) [Rhapsody]

Harris Eisenstadt: Woodblock Prints (2010, NoBusiness): This album got a lot of year-end attention last year -- I think it even won a poll in Spain for best album of the year, so I figured I should check it out. The drummer is barely audible, but his compositions for nonet offer intriguing, albeit mostly plodding, moves. The group is divided into a "brass trio" (French horn, trombone, and tuba) and a "wind trio" (clarinet, alto sax, bassoon). Final piece ("Andrew Hill") picks up the pace and begins to live up to the billing. B+(**) [Rhapsody]

Matana Roberts: Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libre (2010 [2011], Constellation): Young alto saxophonist from Chicago, has the AACM thing going, a couple of good records under her belt. This is an ambitious dive into black history, a large band with three saxes, trumpet, piano, guitar, some strings, two bassists, drums, various odds and ends, many pieces with vocals. A lot of rage, understandable enough, but hard to follow. "I Am," for instance, starts with screams, which out of context are faintly ridiculous, then segues into a singsong rap odd but not untouching or uninteresting. There's something here, probably more than just catharsis. B+(**) [Rhapsody]

Harrison Bankhead Sextet: Morning Sun Harvest Moon (2010 [2011], Engine): Bassist, from Chicago, first album as leader but has side-credits since 1991, mostly with Malachi Thompson, Fred Anderson, Roscoe Mitchell, and Nicole Mitchell. Starts with a pair of wood flutes. Picks up the bass and a beat and even dabbles in what sounds a little like South Africa, eventually moving into more treacherous regions, although idiosyncratic, underkeyed rhythm pieces predominate. Two reed players, Edward Wilkerson Jr. and Mars Williams; James Sanders on violin (all the more useful for a Leroy Jenkins tribute); Avreayl Ra on drums and Ernie Adams on percussion. Nothing here blows you over. It keeps returning to the center, which is the bass. A- [Rhapsody]

Marius Neset: Golden Xplosion (2010 [2011], Edition): Saxophonist (soprano and tenor), from Norway, 25 (1985?), did a semester at Berklee, studied more in Copenhagen, latched onto Django Bates, who plays keyboards here. Second album. The fast stuttery sax runs are fun. The ballads aren't. And Bates indulges in some keyboard overkill early on, intended to crank up the energy level, which works to a point. Some folks are blown away, but some of us are old enough to recall Bates' old sax chum, Iain Ballamy. B [Rhapsody]

Ran Blake: Grey December: Live in Rome (2010 [2011], Tompkins Square): Pianist, b. 1935, thirty-some albums since 1961, many of them solo, especially recently. Difficult player for me to get a handle on, even when he plays something as familiar as "Nature Boy." This doesn't move much, and while the melodic motifs are not without interest, I can't really tell you why. B [Rhapsody]

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

Terrell Stafford: This Side of Strayhorn (2010 [2011], MaxJazz): No surprises here: the songs are classic, the rhythm section (Bruce Barth, Peter Washington, Dana Hall) can swing, the horns drive, with Tim Warfield favoring his soprano sax over his usual tenor, and the leader is almost always out front, earning his showcase. B+(***)

Terrence McManus: Transcendental Numbers (2009 [2011], NoBusiness): With Gerry Hemingway and Mark Helias, more scattered than his duo with Hemingway alone, more because he favors scratchy abstraction here over the electrified chords there. That seems like a strategic choice, not something to pin on the bassist, who is fine as always. B+(***)

Davis S. Ware/Cooper-Moore/William Parker/Muhammad Ali: Planetary Unknown (2010 [2011], AUM Fidelity): Continuing rehab, testing out a new quartet with two subs older than the old quartet -- no point in even thinking about replacing Parker -- with the old fire coming back, colored a bit by switching to soprano three tracks in, then winding up the seventh on stritch. Ware's soprano is distinctive but wears a bit thin. Had my doubts at first about Cooper-Moore's piano, but focusing in I hear sharp angled comping, not as fluid as Shipp but suits the leader fine. A-

Inzinzac (2010 [2011], High Two): Guitar-sax-drums trio: says they're "an improvising jazz trio playing rock music in odd time signatures" which is about right if by rock you mostly mean loud. Whereas guitar displaced sax in rock and roll, in what we might call hardcore fusion the two instruments are often side-by-side, the guitar tuned sax-like, sometimes louder but never quite as clear as the horn. Dan Scofield mostly plays soprano here, so he consistently come out higher and clearer, providing a sharp metallic edge to Alban Bailly's guitar backbone. The "odd" time signatures include free. A-

Wadada Leo Smith's Organic: Heart's Reflections (2011, Cuneiform, 2CD): Mostly electric, including the trumpet as well as lots of guitars and bass, plus some keyb and laptop, which wouldn't have been my first expectation for a band named Organic, but the AACM vet who a decade ago took a wild turn through electric Miles (Yo! Miles) has his own sense of history. First disc, with its Don Cherry tribute opening and a big chunk of the title thing, is uproarious. Second winds down the title thing and ends with tirbutes to Toni Morrison and Leroy Jenkins, which are more halting, erratic, difficult. A-

Steven Lugerner: These Are the Words/Narratives (2010 [2011], self-released, 2CD): Reed player -- clarinet, bass clarinet, soprano sax, alto sax, oboe, English horn -- leads a sharp quartet (Darren Johnston, Myra Melford, Matt Wilson) on one disc and a more sprawling mostly-European septet on the second. Melford is sharp as ever, but doesn't get to do much as the softer reeds tend to coalesce into fog. B+(**)

Unpacking: Found in the mail over the last week:

  • Wolfert Brederode Quartet: Post Scriptum (ECM)
  • Cloning Americana: For Which It Stands (Sunnyside): Aug. 30
  • Avishai Cohen: Seven Seas (Sunnyside): Aug. 30
  • Cecilia Coleman Big Band: Oh Boy! (Interplay)
  • François Couturier: Tarkovsky Quartet (ECM)
  • Deep Blue Organ Trio: Wonderful! (Origin)
  • Armen Donelian: Leapfrog (Sunnyside): Sept. 13
  • Chris Donnelly: Metamorphosis (Alma)
  • Agustí Fernández: El Laberint de la Memória (Mbari Musica)
  • 5 After 4: Rome in a Day (Alma)
  • Glows in the Dark: Beach of the War Gods (self-released)
  • Jerry Gonzalez: Jerry Gonzalez y el Comando de la Clave (Sunnyside): Aug. 30
  • David Greenberger/Jupiter Circle: Never Give Up Study (Pel Pel): Oct. 11
  • David Greenberger/Ralph Carney: OH, PA (Pel Pel): Oct. 11
  • David Greenberger/Bangalore: How I Became Uncertain (Pel Pel): Oct. 11
  • David Greenberger/Mark Greenberg: Tell Me That Before (Pel Pel): Oct. 11
  • Marquis Hill: New Gospel (self-released)
  • Steve Lipman: There's a Song in My Heart (Locomotion)
  • Jocelyn Medina: We Are Water (self-released)
  • Brad Mehldau & Kevin Hays: Modern Music (Nonesuch): advance, Sept. 20
  • Nils Økland/Sigbjørn Apeland: Lysøen/Homage to Ole Bull (ECM)
  • Oscar Perez Nuevo Comienzo: Afropean Affair (Chandra): Oct. 11
  • Mark Segger Sextet: The Beginning (18th Note)
  • Lobi Traore: Bwati Kono "In the Club" (Kanaga System Krush)
  • The Tommy Vig Orchestra 2012: Welcome to Hungary! (Klasszikus Jazz): advance
  • Larry Vuckovich: Somethin' Special (Tetrachord)
  • Westchester Jazz Orchestra: Maiden Voyage Suite (WJO)
  • Woody Witt: Pots and Kettles (Blue Bamboo Music)
  • Sam Yahel: From Sun to Sun (Origin): Aug. 16

Expert Comments

Nicky mentioned Pynchon, so I figured what the hell and wrote:

I read Pynchon's V back when I was in college -- not related to any course -- and thought it was the best novel I'd ever read. Can't say as I've read any better since, but also can't say as I've read many. Stalled out on Gravity's Rainbow about 300 pages in. Still intend to pick it up again someday, like when/if I give up on political problems and decide to just enjoy what's left of my life. (The way things are going this could be the year.)

One novel I did read and never hear anyone talk about is Tom Carson's Gilligan's Wake. Sometimes I feel like we're the same person living in slightly discontinuous universes, close enough that he can sometimes write out of my subconscious. But he did really get snookered by Bob Dole, who remains in my mind the fount of all things evil in the Kansas Republican Party. (I do credit Dole with one good joke: facing a picture of Ford, Carter, and Nixon, he said: "see no evil, hear no evil, and evil.")

Jul 2011