Daily Office:


Matins: Ross Douthat writes lucidly about the the problem posed by someone like Sarah Palin to American politics. It has a lot to do with that problem that Americans don’t like to admit that we have: class distinctions.  

Lauds: Plans to house Gap founder Don Fisher’s modern art collection in San Francisco’s Presidio have been gored by a combination of  NIMBYism and very mistaken preservationism. (via Arts Journal)

Prime: Felix Salmon argues very persuasively against subjecting credit default swaps to regulation by state insurance commissioners. Although slightly daunting at the start, Mr Salmon’s entry is definitely worth the effort.

Tierce: They wanted to put Cecille Villacorta away for a long time. But her lawyer, Joe Tacopina (get his card, now!)  convinced the judge that the Saks saleslady had been trained to increase her commissions by sending kickbacks to favorite customers.

“Basically, Cecille’s saying, ‘You told me to do this. You trained me to do this. I made you $27 million. And I became a defendant,” Tacopina said after court yesterday.

Sext: In case you’ve ever coveted one of those Gill Sans “Keep Calm and Carry On” T shirts (complete with crown), Megan Hustad’s write-up may cure you, at The Awl.

Nones: The death of Robert McNamara occasions a great deal of reflection — if only we can find the time.

Vespers: Hey! See action in war-torn quarters of the globe while engaging in serious literary discussions with brainy fellow warriors! Join the Junior Officers’ Reading Club today!

Compline: According to Psychology Today [yes, we know that we ought to stop right there], parks occupy an astonishing 25.7% of New York City’s surface area! That’s what density makes possible.


§ Matins. The political/chattering/elite classes may have rolled their eyes into blindness, but Sarah Palin remains an appealing figure to millions of Americans precisely because her failings — which, as a former beauty queen, she makes look about as good as they could — endear her to voters who are sure that they would do no better.

In a recent Pew poll, 44 percent of Americans regarded Palin unfavorably. But slightly more had a favorable impression of her. That number included 46 percent of independents, and 48 percent of Americans without a college education.

That last statistic is a crucial one. Palin’s popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology. In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.

This ideal has had a tough 10 months. It’s been tarnished by Palin herself, obviously. With her missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues, she’s botched an essential democratic role — the ordinary citizen who takes on the elites, the up-by-your-bootstraps role embodied by politicians from Andrew Jackson down to Harry Truman.

But it’s also been tarnished by the elites themselves, in the way that the media and political establishments have treated her.

The last paragraph reminds us that, when Ms Palin was foisted upon John McCain late last summer, we called her “The Infernal Machine,” not because she would make a dreadful vice president (too obvious to require a nickname) but because she would make well-educated people on both sides of the aisle foam at the mouth and throw things that they would later regret throwing. Even now, we don’t believe that her infernality in this regard has been disarmed.

No one will ever shake our conviction that the rise of Sarah Palin was made possible by the shooting star of reality television.

§ Lauds. We often wonder if people like Presidio Historical Association President Gary Widman have an inkling of how sclerotically medieval their resistance to any development can be.

“Any other city would have taken the building, the collection and kissed them too,” said Nina Gruen, a local sociologist at Gruen Gruen + Associates, who studies the behavior of groups and how they are affected by development, planning and public policy decisions.

And while we’re at it, Jim Lazarus, senior vice president of public policy at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, reminds us that when the Presidio closed as a military base in 1994, it wasn’t meant to become a bird sanctuary.

“It was an active Army base,” said Lazarus, “and the mandate was to maintain the level of activity that was there when the Army managed it. There were people coming in and out of there all the time. Remember there was a hospital there with thousands of people. What’s the goal now, to make it like the Marin Headlands with nothing but hikers? I don’t think so.”

§ Prime. For one thing, they’re not insurance contracts. For another thing, insurance commissioners are not up to the job.

And let’s not forget that the New York State insurance commissioner — the only insurance regulator even remotely capable of regulating credit default swaps — was the regulator responsible for regulating MBIA, Ambac, and all the other monoline insurers who blew up as a result of writing far too many underpriced credit-default swaps. The SEC may or may not be an effective CDS regulator, but New York State has proved itself an ineffective CDS regulator.

In any event, if you want strong and effective regulation, the last person you want to turn to is an insurance commissioner. Insurance companies are the most highly-leveraged financial institutions in the world, if you look at the ratio of their contingent liabilities to their book value. That’s one reason why most insurers end up blowing up: they’re generally massively exposed to tail risk. Consider life insurers, for instance: they dodged one bullet, when AIDS ended up disproportionately hitting the kind of people (gay men, intravenous drug users) who don’t tend to have children and therefore normally don’t have much in the way of life insurance. But if a pandemic does start scything down a lot of rich people with children, expect a lot of life insurers to go bust — just as property insurers would disappear en masse if a hurricane were to hit Miami or New York. In theory, insurers hedge their catastrophe risk in the reinsurance market; in practice, they don’t, or not completely. And reinsurers can go bust, too.

Takeaway: in case of plague, make sure that your rich, elderly relatives sicken and die first, and don’t dilly-dally about claiming benefits!

§ Tierce. When Ms Italiano passes the Bar exam (which we have no doubt that she could), we’ll be able to understand stories like this one a little more readily.

But perhaps we speak to soon. Prosecutor David Nasar has presumably passed the Bar, but his mind  could use a little Weiman’s.

Saks sent a rep to this morning’s sentencing to ask the trial judge, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Gregory Carro, to send Villacorta away for significant time. “She was secretly and deliberately stealing from the company,” said Andrea Robins, director of customer services. Thieves like her “are picking the pockets of all Americans.”

Tacopina laughed afterward at the exclusive department chain’s claim of going to bat for “all Americans.” “To suggest they were speaking out for all Americans was a Twilight Zone moment for me,” he said.

Prosecutor David Nasar had wanted Villacorta caged for between two and six years, and noted to the judge that she has never expressed remorse for her crimes. Her argument that she made Saks far more money than she was ever charged with taking has no logic, he told the judge. “It’s like saying the more you sell, the more you can steal.”

The long-short seems to be that, having raked in the revenue, Saks wanted to deep-six the broker.

§ Sext. If it’s not  an original, gently pulled from a London wall during World j0707aWar II, it’s the worst sort of bogus.

This cheerfully cheeky bag, however, allows you to have your cake and eat it. The same handsome, modestly imperial design conveys a message for our times, and gets frightfully close, actually, to the heart of darkness beneath sloganiferous clothing.

§ Nones. Did McNamara come to see the error of his ways? It is unclear, as Tim Weiner’s obituary in the Times suggests. Take his activities at the World Bank, for example.

As he had done at the Pentagon and Ford, Mr. McNamara sought to remake the bank. When he arrived on April 1, 1968, the bank was lending about $1 billion a year. That figure grew until it stood at $12 billion when he left in 1981. By that time the bank oversaw some 1,600 projects valued at $100 billion in 100 nations, including hydroelectric dams, superhighways and steel factories.

The ecological effects of these developments had not been taken into account, however. In some cases corruption in the governments that the bank aimed to help undid its good intentions. Many poor nations, overwhelmed by their debts to the bank, were not able to repay loans.

The costs of Mr. McNamara’s work thus sometimes outweighed the benefits, and that led to a concerted political attack on the bank itself during the 1980s.

We have never forgotten the searing denunciation of McNamara’s legacy that John Ralston Saul made in his cranky but vital 1992 treatise, Voltaire’s Bastards. Here Mr Saul traces McNamara’s ultimate rejection of his own invention, Flexible Response.

At no point does he mention, or indeed appear conscious, that the present situation of nuclear proliferation and strategic uncertainty is largely of his own creation. Nor does he acknowledge that it was done precisely through the use of advanced planning and management as devised by himself. Nor does he seem to realize that he has traveled in a complete circle.

The movement of history is the great enemy of someone like McNamara. History is linear memory and, as such, beyond organization and indifferent to reason. The characteristic common to the modern man of reason is this loss of memory; loss or rather, denied as an uncontrollable element. And if it must be remembered, then that evocation of real events is always presented as either quaint or dangerous. The past, when it involves a failed system, disappears from the mind. The past is always ad hoc. The future is always optimistic, because it is available for unencumbered solutioneering. And the present lies helpless beneath his feet, just begging to be managed.

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that anything which was not on Robert McNamara’s flowchart is not his fault. And none of what has gone wrong appears to have had anything to do with his planning.

The greatest impact that Mr Saul’s book had for me was a permanent bifurcation of the concepts of reasonableness and rationality.

§ Vespers. Once upon a time, this photograph would have meant one thing, and one thing only: that left-leaning military men do exist. Today, of course, we can’t be so sure. Doesn’t 2nd Lieutenant Will Harris appear to be hiding a smirk?

The book looks genuine, though.

§ Compline. Not surprisingly (at all), Chicago trails the list of seven American metropoli — at 8%, worse even than Los Angeles’ 9.9%. (I daresay that tiny San Francisco does not belong on this list.)

The point of the article is that a walk in the park will reset your mind and recharge your mental batteries, while a walk around the block won’t help at all.

Why does a bit of greenery help us think better? Stephen Kaplan, an author of the study, argues that different environments recruit different kinds of attention. Urban environments require intense concentration in order to process the overload of arresting stimuli; it’s hard work to navigate traffic, tune out cell phone conversations, and ignore advertisements. Nature, on the other hand, provides fascinating, but not alarming, stimuli, like a rosy sunset or the rustle of leaves. They catch our attention in a modest way, giving our mental muscles a chance to refresh.

The benefits of a natural environment go far beyond cognitive performance: Exposure to nature has been correlated with decreased stress, diminished anger and anxiety, increased job satisfaction, and faster recovery times for postoperative patients. Sunshine and breezes really are the key to renewable energy.

We know; we ought to have stopped before I began. But now we really know!

One Response to “Daily Office:

  1. Mike says:

    Good morning RJ;

    Please don’t take Felix Salmon any more seriously than you would Jim Cramer, he’s a fraud.

    Mike O’Neill

    P.S. Hope Kathleen is feeling better.