Today at the DBR: Worried sick about the likes of Bryan Fischer.
Archive for the ‘Big Ideas’ Category
Today at the DBR: What would be the doctrine that today’s Roman Catholic laity might focus on?
Today at the DBR: Can you regulate wicked behavior? That is, can routinely bad behavior be corrrected by investigations? Three stories in the Times make me wonder. The subjects: the NCAA, the Fair Labor Association, and the Volcker Rule.
Today at the DBR: Reflections on Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker essay about prisons in America, and why they’re so full, and so full of minority prisoners. New glints on the issue: William Stuntz’s idea that the Bill of Rights is itself the problem with American justice, and Gopnik’s own faith in “chipping away” at social problems. Even for someone as irreverent as I am, regarding the Bill of Rights as fundamentally mistaken and/or inadequate is shocking — but only for a moment. But nothing could be more congenial than “small sanities.” It’s what setting a good example is all about.
Today at the DBR: Just a little idea for what to do with this building.
What fun it would be to be very rich. The other day, Ray Soleil discussed my idea for superblocks, two avenues wide and four streets deep, with all construction at the perimeter — high-rises on the avenues, walkups on the street fronts, just like today, but all built at once and sharing a common plant — with central courtyards under which service tramways (for deliveries to the street-level shops, moves, and garbage removal) would run the length of the island. Or, not the island, because the place to try this out would be Queens.
The little idea that I had yesterday could be done for much, much less.
Fortunately, I was never a big fan of Barak Obama. He’s a smart guy, certainly, but even before he was elected — even before he campaigned for the presidency — he took prudence to the point of vice. Did anyone hear from him in the ethnic-cleansing aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? Let me know if you did.
No, all I cared about was his party affiliation, because all I cared — and care — about is fixing the Supreme Court, which is gushing toxic opinions at a clip to rival the Macondo well’s. As currently constituted, the Roberts Court poses a greater ecological threat to the United States than twenty broken wells. It won’t be happy, I think, until it has rearranged the population into two groups: wealthy rentiers and the people who service them. If you’re not working for somebody rich, you probably won’t be working at all.
Even so, although I’m not disappointed by President Obama, I am genuinely alarmed by his quiescence. The oil pours on and on and he does nothing. What can he do? He can order the Navy to demolish the well with conventional explosives, that’s what he can do. Or, in the alternative, he can explain to me why he doesn’t want to do that. But the proper course of action seems barred to him not because he’s unaware of unusual military solutions but because he still thinks that, as the private property of a group of corporations (each pointing fingers at the others), the well is beyond his reach. For him, that seems to be the end of the story. The well is dealing incredible damage to large swathes of this country, devastating livelihoods and destroying habitats — but he does nothing because, it seems, the well is private property. Nocando.
Correct me if I’m wrong, please! And please tell me how the president’s reaction is different from expecting homeowners to extinguish their own conflagrations in case of fire. Four alarm blaze : fire department :: Macondo disaster : naval intervention. Yes? Correct me if I’m wrong!
President Obama’s agenda is littered with murky problems — a monstrously uncertain war in Afghanistan, economic instability at home, an increasingly dysfunctional Congress — but this is not one of them. The only thing that’s murky about the Macondo well disaster is what it’s doing to the Gulf of Mexico.
A word or two about Tyler Cowen’s recent entry at Marginal Revolution, “When does large-scale public ownership work?” The butt of this piece is a compare-and-contrast of the cultures of China and France on the one hand and of the United States on the other. Here is what Americans do not share with the French and the Chinese:
In part this is a puzzle but in part France and China have one important feature in common: it’s high status to be a ruler. Very smart Frenchmen often grow up wanting to work for the government. Hardly anyone in France thinks that is weird and so the French bureaucracy has some of the best talent in the country.
Americans get carried away by sentimental patriotism as eagerly as any buch of guys, but their love of country is pallid compared with what France and China inspire in their nationals: both countries are “middle kingdoms,” central sovereignties habituated to setting broad cultural standards and to solving regional problems in terms of sheer chthonic majesty. (Whether either France or China is “entitled” to this drastically superior self-image is, here, beside the point.) In both countries, being Chinese/French is a civil project that’s at least as important as any other that the government might foster (defense, industry). No wonder, then, that smart and ambitious graduates find civil service to be a top-drawer careeer.
The relationship between “being American” and the American government is starkly opposite: the government’s only task is to stay out of the way of Americans’ self-realization. Fervently patriotic Americans are like the appreciative children of very permissive parents: their taste for freedom cannot be exaggerated. And where once the canonical image of the free American was the cowboy, now it is the entrepreneur. Mr Cowen doesn’t use the word in his entry, but he carves out a space that only it could fill.
I also prefer to live in a society where the public sector does not have so much prestige. Very often governmental prestige stifles innovation and implies a series of more general insider, elitist, and sometimes authoritarian attitudes. It’s also worth a quick look at the histories of what France and China had to do to build up so much governmental prestige; not pretty.
My sympathies are altogether opposed to these sentiments; it will always be a matter of the deepest regret that I did not contrive to live my life in a society that exalted the public sector above all others. I believe that entrepreneurs are of strictly marginal importance in a society as complex as ours, and even if they’re ten times more important than I think them to be, they’re no model for the rest orf us. While I would not call myself an “elitist,” I will not deny or try to hide the fact that I was born, by whatever accidents, into the American elite and that I have spent my entire life in that atmosphere. Mr Cowen certainly does so now, whatever his origins. The odds are very strong that, if you, the reader, are a member of the American elite.
What’s great about France and China — and wretched about Anglophone civilization — is that elite groups do not hypocritically pretend that they do not enjoy great advantages — the sort of advantages that will accrue to people at or near the levers of power so long as human beings walk on two legs. I don’t know that French or Chinese elites are qualitatively more responsible to their cultures than privileged Americans are, but at least they’re not vacuously pretending that they’re not Old Etonians.
© 2009 Tom Waterhouse
(Except me. I had a great year, really; I was the spring in this guy’s step.)
¶ Prime: David Segal’s update on the failure to reform the ratings-agency biz in any meaningful way suggests that the conflict has little to do with lobbying (for once) but reveals a clash of visions, between bold (reckless) and cautious (ineffective). (NYT)
¶ Nones: The opera buffa in Honduras too a turn for the seriously dramatic on Tuesday, with the assassination General Julian Aristides Gonzalez, the Honduran drug czar. The crime opens a window on our view of the local economy. (BBC News)
In a sidebar, Jorn Madslien reports that Shanghai Automotive Industries owns a majority share of Shanghai General Motors’s venture in India, leaving (American) General Motors to take “a back seat.” (BBC News)
¶ Lauds: A very interesting comment from Felix Salmon, writing about productivity/price differentials between the fine-arts and photography markets. The former has split in two, with mass-marketed items buoying a “an elite circle of valuable works.” The dynamic hasn’t been tried in photography.
¶ Tierce: How to account for same-sex liaisons in terms of natural selection? The investigation promises to be complex and counterintuitive. Also: resistant to cross-species generalizations!
Gore Vidal has always insisted that there is really no such thing as homosexuality; perhaps he’s right after all. (New Scientist)
¶ Vespers: At HuffPo, Alexander Nazaryan proposes Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland as the American novel of the passing decade. We heartily concur, and we nominate Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End as runner-up.
¶ Matins: At New Geography, Aaron Renn looks at the outmigration of the middle class from “cool” cities, and attributes it, persuasively, to the failure of civic responsibility among “global” elites.
Clearly, the current models for organizing metropolitan areas are wholly inadequate. In our view, layers of government (state, country, local, school district) ought to be replaced by types of government: highly coordinated networking authorities (transit, power, hospitals) coexisting with highly localized service providers (schools, clinics, and parks). (via The Morning News)
¶ Lauds: Cityscape critic Blair Kamin is surprised to be supporting the destruction of a shed designed by Mies van der Rohe. The accompanying photograph is a bit of a tease: the shed hides behind a fence. (Chicago Tribune; via Arts Journal)
¶ Prime: PIMCO’s Mohamed El-Erian finds in the Dubai debt standstill “a reminder to all: last year’s financial crisis was a consequential phenomenon whose lagged impact is yet to play out fully in the economic, financial, institutional and political arenas.” We knew this, but it’s great to hear it from an eminent fund manager.
In our own front yard, Wall Street’s influence inside the White House needs to be muzzled, if not baffled. (Telegraph; via Marginal Revolution)
¶ Tierce: Michael Bond briefly but lucidly reviews Eli Berman’s Radical, Religious and Violent: The New Economics of Terrorism, a new sociological study that, notwithstanding its title, sees beyond the religious angle. (New Scientist)
¶ Sext: Nico Muhly, writing from Amsterdam, finds “a sort of childlike pornography” in Nederlands orthography. (This vanishes when you learn how to pronounce things.) He is also “obsessed” by the common digraph, ij. (via Snarkmarket)
¶ Nones: Predictably, Sunday’s election in Honduras settled almost nothing, even though Porfirio Lobo appears to have won more or less fairly. The Honduran Congress will vote today on whether Mel Zelaya will finish out his term in office. (NYT)
¶ Vespers: n case the popularity of a current blockbuster has you wondering if you’d like to read the book, Jenny Turner not only reconsiders her review in the London Review of Books but also supplies a list of blogs that offer highly entertaining spoilers about the later novels in this peculiar series.
¶ Compline: Having got wind of special treatment for denizens of the eastern-most block of West 61st Street on Thanksgiving Day, Clyde Haberman investigated in person. His worst fears are confirmed. (NYT)
¶ In the post-holiday recovery, we wouldn’t want to neglect mention of Maira Kalman’s delicious Thanksgiving contribution, “Back to the Land.”
¶ Prime: onathan Ford and Peter Thal Larsen propose three concrete measures for trimming banks down to salvageable — fail-able — size. First, proportional capital buffers. Second, restore a virtual Glass-Steagall by insulating relatively safe activities from relatively risky ones. Third, dissolve global banks into “confederacies of national subsidiaries.” (Prospect)
¶ Nones: Clan strife (exacerbated by religious differences) appears to be at the back of the gruesome abduction and massacre of at least 20 lawyers and journalists in the Philippine province of Maguindanao, where the writ of Manila appears not to run very effectively. (NYT)
¶ Vespers: Sonya Chung discovers the drawbacks of multitasking — walking the dog while listening to an audiobook. The piece is really about how dogs are a writer’s best friend because they can’t talk, and Revolutionary Road teaches us that talk destroys; but, hey. (The Millions)
¶ Compline: Owen Flanagan reviews an intriguing book: Reading in the Brain, by Stanislas Dehaene. If our brains haven’t significantly evolved for 200,000 years (by the way: how does anyone know this?), then how have we managed to read for the past five thousand? Exaptation! (New Scientist)
¶ Matins: Is Bob Cringely mad? His vision of the future, “Pictures in Our Heads” — well you can see where he’s going. (“And the way we’ll shortly communicate with our devices, I predict, will be through our thoughts.”) But it’s the beginning of the entry that caught our eye. The power of Mr Cringely’s assumption (with which we’re ever more inclined to agree), that the iPhone/iTouch is today’s seminal device, from which everything in the future will somehow flow, seems to mark a moment.
¶ Lauds: Isaac Butler outlines just how very hard it is to apportion praise and blame in the highly collaborative atmosphere of the theatre. Mr Butler winds up by pointing out how much easier it is to judge the performance of a classic play, because one of the variables — the text, usually unfamiliar to premiere audiences — is taken out of the problem. (Parabasis; via Arts Journal and the Guardian)
¶ Prime: Jeffrey Pfeffer discusses the “Sad State of CEO Replacement.” His remarks prompt a question: Is the typical board of directors a band of masochists in search of a dominator? The minute a self-assertive bully walks in, they tend to submit with rapture. (The Corner Office)
¶ Sext: Adam Gopnik addresses the evolution of cookbooks, from aides-mémoire intended for professionals to encyclopedias for novices, and beyond. Oakeshott and gender differences are dragged in. The recent fetish for exotic salts is explained. (The New Yorker)
¶ Vespers: Our favorite literary couples, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, sits for an interview with the Wall Street Journal. We knew the basics. But it’s nice to have a bit of detail. (Who knew that Pasternak’s style is “studied”?) (via The Second Pass)
¶ Compline: At NewScientist, a slideshow taken from Christopher Payne’s Asylum: Inside the closed World of State Mental Hospitals. The show, presumably like Mr Payne’s book, ends on a guardedly positive note. (via The Morning News)
¶ Matins: Driving while intoxicated, and with a child in the car, will be made a felony, according to a law that has passed the New York State Assembly. Interlock devices, which block ignition when the driver’s breath carries faint amounts of alcohol, will be required for drivers convicted of driving while intoxicated. (NYT)
¶ Lauds: Lucy Lu recently celebrated the first anniversary of Met Everyday, her online report of visits to the Museum. Her list of ten things that you must see (or wings that you must visit) is personable but not surprising — with the exception of the modern-art item.
¶ Prime: Tom Bajarin’s discussion, at PCMag Mobile, of the impact of Vooks on publishing suggests to us that the author of a plain old book could do as well as a Vook developer, delivering a formatted text as an “app,” and collecting 70% of the price. (via The Tomorrow Museum)
¶ Tierce: We’ve heard of the Ithaca Hours, an alternative local currency, but we can’t imagine how anything like it would work in Manhattan. But who cares: it would be gorgeous, if these bills designed by students at the School for Visual Arts were in circulation. (via The Best Part)
¶ Sext: Will Sam Sifton be the next editor of the New York Times? It’s a very interesting rumor, considering that the gent has just been assigned to reviewing restaurants for the newspaper. We’ll say this: he has certainly dusted off the genre.
¶ Vespers: V L Hartmann bumps into Joan Didion in the street — almost — and observes that in her carriage as in her prose, the author of The Year of Magical Thinking is not like “the old ladies you see up here on the East Side that are all stooped over.” (The Morning News)
¶ Matins: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals is eaten alive by John Williams, at The Second Pass, in a piece that begins with the surprised observation that Mr Foer does not mention Peter Singer in his book.
¶ Nones: Joshua Kurlantzick discusses President Obama’s trip to Asia, regretting that Indonesia was left off the itinerary and noting the dispiriting realism of Asian diplomacy today. (London Review Blog)
¶ Vespers: Grant Risk Hallberg’s long piece on myth and backlash in Bolaño studies serves as a toolkit to bring you completely up-to-date on a writer who, from beyond the grave, has excited a pungent array of macho responses. (The Millions)
¶ Matins: In an over-and-above beautiful essay, Jonathan Raban recollects that he was taught to read, first, by his mother, and then, by William Empson. But Seven Types of Ambiguity opened his eyes to more than texts. (London Review of Books)
¶ Lauds: With trademark lucidity, Anne Midgette finds similarities between the troubles that newspapers are suffering these days and the woes of symphony orchestras. Not only that; she puts her finger on what’s wrong wrong with plans to “save” them. (Washington Post; via Arts Journal)
¶ Sext: Scouting New York, which has just turned one year old, continues its exploration of the city’s out-of-the-way cemeteries. Moore-Jackson, in Woodside, looks like a destination park, but Scout tells us that it’s all locked up. (How did he get in, we don’t wonder?)
¶ Nones: Although Peter Galbraith doesn’t appear, at first glance, to have done anything wrong, he doesn’t seem to have been much concerned about the appearance of impropriety. While in some sort of complicated, conditional contractual relationship with a Norwegian drilling company, he participated in Iraqi constitutional negotiations (as an adviser, obviously) that resulted in Kurdish control over oil revenues. As a result of both factors, he stands to gain about $100 million.
¶ Vespers: In today’s Times, two good-sounding books received generous coverage in the form of news stories. That ought to do it so far as the Grey Lady is concerned. Neither book warrants coverage in the Book Review. (Janet Maslin gave Mr Agassi’s book a guarded rave in the daily paper.)
The first is Andre Agassi’s memoir, for which T J Moehringer, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Tender Bar served as “midwife.” Mr Moehringer insists that he did not ghostwriting, but only coaxed Mr Agassi into writing a good book.
The other book is high-end furniture restorer Maryalice Huggins’s Aesop’s Mirror: A Love Story. Although we’re looking forward to reading this book, we don’t want to read any more about it.
¶ Compline: Compline: Gene doping is already prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency, but fat lot of good that is going to do the inspectors, given the difficulties of detection. (Short Sharp Science)
¶ Matins: Matins: Darshak Sanghavi, a pediatric cardiologist and the health-care columnist at Slate, writes lucidly about medical-malpractice litigation. The tort-based system is broken, but it works, sort of. Dr Sanghavi likens it to a casino — terrifying doctors as a class while overcompensating a handful of plaintiffs — but he also attributes significant drops in patient injuries to lessons learned. (via The Morning News)
¶ Lauds: Two public spaces that people will know better from photographs than from visits: The National September 11 Memorial & Museum (when and if) and the White House. The latter, which is indeed a house, requires periodic replacement therapy, in the form of “redecoration,” a word that, Martin Filler tells us, Jacqueline Kennedy didn’t like. (via Felix Salmon and The Morning News)
¶ Sext: Two pieces that were printed side-by-side in the Times, and ought to have appeared in the same fashion online. Food colleagues Kim Severson and Julia Moskin are Jack Sprat and his wife about Thanksgiving. For Ms Severson, it is all about turkey. For Ms Moskin, the turkey is a turkey. The bitchery is quite amiable.
¶ Nones: We’re not quite sure why the offer would help negotiations along, but the UK will return 45 square miles of sovereign territory on Cyprus to — to whom? We can remember when Cyprus was in the news every day. Remember Archbishop Makarios? (BBC News)
¶ Vespers: Dan Hill’s review of Alain de Botton’s Heathrow book, A Week at the Airport, is long and serious but hugely compelling, inspired to be challenging where the book under review leaves off. For example, after quoting the passage about an interview with an airline CEO that stressed the fact that neither the CEO nor Mr de Botton works in a profit-making industry, Mr Hill cocks an eyebrow. (City of Sound; via The Tomorrow Museum)
¶ Compline: David Dobbs argues for replacing the “vulnerability” model of genetic variation with an “orchid” model. The older thinking holds that variants increase their carriers’ vulnerability to disorder. The new idea acknowledges vulnerability but also inverts it, seeing heightened access to special skills. (The Atlantic)
¶ Matins: Paul Krugman addresses our most dangerous problem: the growing power of a right-wing rump without any interest in governing and with every intention of preventing others from governing: “the GOP has been taken over by the people it used to exploit. (NYT)
¶ Lauds: Duran Duran bassist John Taylor, who “became a teenager in 1972,” fears that the Internet has not been a positive force for popular culture. He seems troubled by the fact that it makes too much old stuff too easy to get, thus reducing the need for new stuff. (BBC News; via Arts Journal)
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¶ Lauds: The sale of the Lehman Brothers art collection, although it brought in twice the projected total, demonstrates the wishful thinking behind much art investing. Quite aside from the fact that Lehman was not in the business of purchasing artworks in order to profit from their resale (as indeed it was supposed to be doing with its other investments), the proceeds of the sale are but a drop in the bucket of Lehman’s bankruptcy — $1.35 million as against $250 billion. (Bloomberg; via Arts Journal)
¶ Prime: Steve Tobak doesn’t buy the theory, advanced by The Daily News, that Galleon-Scandal insiders Hector Ruiz and Bob Moffit were lured to their doom by a comely lass called Danielle Chiesi — but that’s only because he doesn’t think that she’s much of a “cheerleader.” (The Corner Office)
¶ Sext: Meanwhile, Choire Sicha takes his lorgnette (or is a loupe?) to a new line from Michael Bastian that Michael Williams probably won’t be covering: Homeless Chic. $525 just for long underwear! (The Awl)
¶ Vespers: A long appreciation of Cheever’s Journals from Geoff Dyer — a writer of very similar lyrical gifts. Mr Dyer persuasively ties Cheever’s craftsmanship as a published writer to his repressed homosexuality, and sees both as prisons. (Guardian; via Critical Mass)