Saturday, January 31, 2009

What a day!

If you want to know why I prefer living in Southern California, today will serve as a good reason. Clear skies, temperature almost to 80. I had to stay inside to work on my article for in the morning, and found when I went outside it was warmer outside than inside -- shirtsleeve weather. A few clouds, mountains in the distance across the lake with still a bit of snowcap. A day to make you want to sing, which I did while cleaning the pool filter and watering plants. They say we may get rain on Friday, and we can probably use it. But it's slated to be beautiful 'til then.

Of course that's what the state government counts on. We are overtaxed and overregulated and facing about a $40 billion deficit over the next 18-19 months. Sacramento is polarized, with both sides in deep denial about just how serious the problems are, unable to do anything remotely sensible. Government worker unions have a lock on state government, so the unsustainable spending continues. While housing prices have dropped they are still not affordable for lots of average-income people. But when you have beautiful days like today people stay and hope for the best.

Bruins looking strong!

As a dinterested fan with no stake in either team I like close games, of course. Preferably with doubtle overtime. But as an unabashed and very partisan fan, I love the way the Bruins handled Stanford this afternoon. Take a lead going into halftime, then come out in the first few minutes of the second half and take over, putting the other team on notice that it's not going to make a comeback and win this one. 97-63, not bad!

If this is a harbinger of things to come rather than just a very strong week, the Bruins should go deep into March Madness. Sign that it might be a harbinger is that several of the freshmen besides Holiday got significant playing time and extended the lead while they were in. Toward the end, in garbage time, some of those who had played few minutes kept driving into traffic and taking bad shots when they might have been better to kick it out, but that's inexperience and adrenaline. I can't wait to play ASU and Washington again and see if those losses are avenged. If think they just mnight run the table.

Only stimulating pork

Peggy Noonan has a tendency to over-romanticize politics and its capacity to be ennobling or even sometimes constructive. Still, she has a point in yesterday's column. Obama missed a big chance to assert himself and come up with a "stimulus" that might have actually stimulated some economic activity instead of just being a pastiche of pork (assuming government spending is actually stimulative, which is far from certain. Tax cuts can be, however.). Both Democrats and Republicans couldn't wait to return to their hyper-partisan habits, with the Democrats crafting a bill with everything on their wish-list for the last couple of decades with zero GOP input, and all House Republicans taking a stand and voting against it. I'm inclined to agree that there's a stupid party and an evil party, and when they get together and produce something both stupid and evil they call it bipartisanship. But the swiftness with which both parties were so eager to let Obama know post-partisanship wouldn't last a week was kinda shocking. If he had had more legislative experience or had thought this stimulus thing through more, I think he could have knocked some Dem heads together and forced a slightly less obnoxious bill. Maybe it will happen in the Senate. Here's the Register's take on the situation.

Et tu, EBay?

Unemployment is up again, companies one might have thought were solid are announcing layoffs, the LA Times announced layoffs today, and the Philadelphia Inquirer is reported to be flirting with Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell about a $10 million state bailout. (Presumably the only way to have a free and independent press in this country is to make it a ward of government.) But perhaps the most important signal that this recession is real and not likely to go away very soon is that EBay has announced a hefty year-to-year decline, with profit falling 31% from last year, the first decline since 1995 (which means it weathered the bubble-burst). We in the newspaper business, who have seen our revenues decline in large part because of migration to the Net, not only for news but advertising (Craigslist and have hammered us; Register employment ad revenue was down 40% in 2008) had tended to see Net businesses as somehow all-powerful. (Incidentally, one of the best commentaries I've seen on the slow death of newspapers is this from's Jack Shafer.) If EBay is seeing profits decline and laying people off, the recession is serious indeed.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Why Afghanistan?

Obama has said repeatedly that Afghanistan is the real central front in the misnamed "war on terror," and is apparently planning to commit up to 30,000 more U.S. troops (in addition to 36,000 there now) to the fight. SecDef Gates testified this week that we should scale back our objectives and focus on the military battle against the Taliban rather than nation-building (leave that to NATO, he said, though he didn't take enough notice that the Europeans would just as soon get their troops out). This strikes me as profoundly misguided.

As this Register editorial points out, Afghanistan is bigger than Iraq, with more difficult terrain and no tyradition of having a central government. Karzai's government is corrupt and ineffective and the Taliban is mostly indigenous rather than being foreign fighters. And they have that safe haven in Pakistan. We should leave Afghanistan to the Afghans after putting them on notice that we'll strike if we have a bead on Osama bin Laden, perhaps after giving them maybe five minutes notice. Otherwise we could be there and unlikely to dominate in the graveyard of empires. Even, hardly a bunch of pansy isolationists, is inclined to agree, arguing that the real focus shold be on al-Qaida, by withdrawing troops from AFghanistan and giviung the anti-al-Qaida burdfen to intelligence and special forces.

Bruins are back! 81-66

Of course I attribute the victory tonight to the fact that I donned the UCLA sweatshirt I got for Christmas before even turning on the game. Right!

The victory over Cal tonight was satisfying because it showed they weren't demoralized by the loss to Washington but rather took to heart the need to tighten up the defense (16 Cal turnovers including 12 steals in the first half) and take the ball to the basket rather than settling for long jumpers. We'll see Saturday, playing Stanford, which will be smarting after a 1-point loss to USC where the difference was one that rolled around and came out, whether they can sustain it. They have shown a troubling inconsistency in the last week or so. It looked tonight as if the loss refocused them. I hope so.

Reversal of principles

Here's a WSJ editorial that illustrates how completely many self-styled conservatives have reversed field on the all-important issue of executive-branch power. It deplores the fact that Dawn Johnsen, Obama's choice to head the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Dept., is not totally dedicated to an expansive vision of executive power. Ms. Johnsen has not only criticized the Bushies' power-grabs but written that it would be good if forces within the executive branch, mainly legal advisers, exercised constraint on the tendency of the executive branch to go for the gusto in the power-grab department. The Journal sniffs that this is like hiring your wife's divorce lawyer. The notion that a president or his advisers might have a slightly more modest view of their powers and that this might be good for America doesn't occur to them.

This is almost a complete reversal of the dominant conservative view of executive power back when the movement was younger. Russell Kirk used the term "the imperial presidency" before Arthur Schlesinger Jr. did. James Burnham, a senior editor of National Review, wrote a book, "Congress and the American Tradition," deploring the flow of power to the executive branch and away from Congress. But beginning in the Reagan administration increasing numbers of conservatives became Hamiltonian advocates of "energy in the executive," and most conservatives became uncritical fans of unlimited executive power during the Bush administration. You can check the process in Gene Healey's recent book, "The Cult of the Presidency."

Maybe with a Democrat in power they'll come to appreciate the original intent better. That's generally what dictates attitude rather than principle. When a Republican is in the White House conservatives worship executive power and liberals worry about imperial tendencies, and vice versa when a Democrat is there.

Wha hoppen to Princess Caroline?

Both the New Yorker and New York magazine have long pieces that purport to go behind the scenes of Caroline Kennedy-Schlosser's aborted bid to be appointed U.S. Senator from New York. Unfortunately, while both have a fair amount of interesting detail, neither really tells us exactly what happened or why? Did Paterson always plan to appoint her, or did she drop out because she'd gotten word he didn't plan to? My hypothesis is that she got a big taste of New York-style politics, developed a pretty good idea of how drastically life would change if she went to the Senate, and decidedshe didn't want it that badly. John seemed more like the natural politician of the family.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Eric Holder: bad on guns and grass

Eric Holder is almost sure to be confirmed as Obama's attorney general some time this week, but my doubts about him are growing. As this Register editorial outlines, he signed on to a "no individual right to keep and bear arms" amicue curiae before the Suptreme Court's Heller decision, and at least in 1996-97 he was a militant drug warrior who sought a five-year mandatory-minimum sentence for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. He was questioned briefly about guns during confirmation hearings, but although the Marijuana Policy Project and NORML have expressed concern, nobody questioned him about his retrograde views on the war on (some) drugs.

All this is germane because during the campaign Obama promised he would stop the DEA from conducting raids on atients and providers in states with medical marijuana laws (though the DEA conducted raids in California and Colorado last Thursday, after the inauguration. But the DEA is part of the Justice Department. Will Eric Holder implement Obama's promises or drag his feet?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Besides, torture doesn't work

Here's my most recent column for, expressing satisfaction at Obama people being reasonably straightforward in renouncing torture -- and making the oft-overlooked point that there's no evidence that torture actually works at getting reliable information, that it's inferior to patient and intelligent interrogation. Jack Bauer is a fictional character.

Don't nationalize the banks (any more)

I'm not sure whether the idea of outright nationalizing banks is a dead letter now (though the idea has been in the air, or on the Net) or whether the banks are so close to being nationalized now that it doesn't matter much if the government takes the formal step or not. Anyway, it's a bad idea. I enjoyed talking to Lawrence White, at U. of Missouri-St. Louis to prepare for the Register's editorial denouncing the idea. Larry, who got his doctorate at UCLA (after my time), has made the economics of banking something of a specialty. His latest book is "Theory of Monetary Institutions." We didn't have time to discuss just how we might get all the way to free banking from here. As most freedom-oriented reforms like privatization and deregulation, it will likely come only after all the lousy alternatives have been exhausted, grounded in desperation rather than because of the impeccable arguments of scholars like Larry White. But he has laid intellectual groundwork.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Double-standard on Geithner

The Senate approved Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary today. He may well be an able person, but if you or I had "neglected" to pay more than $30,000 on federal taxes we wouldn't be hearing complimentary speeches from the world most dubious deliberative body. More likely they'd be demanding jail time. But both Reps and Dems seemed to want him, so once again a member of the political/bureaucratic class gets a pass. Here's the Register's disapproving editorial.

Good start on Gitmo

As expected, Pres. Obama has announced the the prison camp at Guantanamo will be closed within a year. As I've mentioned in several places, it won't be easy. A few of those characters are really dangerous, some can't be released to their home countries without serious fear that they'll be seriously tortured, and the European countries have refused to take any of them in large part because the U.S. won't take any (even the Uighurs, Chinese Muslims everybody acknowledges should never have been there). But even the Bushies acknowledge that some have no business being there, so making the decision is a good start.

Incidentally, the WaPo ran a fascinating story Sunday, noting that the military officers first assigned to Gitmo did almost everything right, obeying the Geneva conventions though it wasn't strictly required and establishing a reasonably humane environment. Then the civilians, mainly Rumsfeld, got involved and things went downhill.

Here's the Register's editorial. On this one my old friend Steve Chapman agrees.

Bruins need help

Well, I'm not quite ready to give up hope of going deep into the tournament, but it sure looks as if the Bruins have a closing problem. Maybe they need a little pep talk from Kyra Sedgwick.

Yes, they've lost in Seattle the last five years and have still won the Pac 10 most of those years. Yes, Lorenzo Romar is a terrific coach who seems to have put together a good team this year, one that plays solid defense. But you can't go 5 minutes without making a hoop (12 minutes against ASU) as the clock winds down and expect to win games. I don't know just what winner's mentality the Bruins lack this year. I think they have the talent, some of the freshmen besides Holliday are starting to contribute, and people were saying just a week or so ago that they just might sweep through the league schedule. So much for that idea!

Time to suck it up.

Feds fumbled digital transition

Well it looks as if we're in for four more months of those annoying commercials about the imminent changeover to digital TV signals, commercials apparently aimed at people with a room-temperature (in winter! without a furnace!) IQ who are so clueless only the government can get them through this traumatic transition. The Senate passed a bill to delay the changeover and the House is more than likely to go along. The Obamaites have already floated the balloon.

Trouble is, insofar as the transition really is likely to be even mildly traumatic it's because the government decided to handle it through mandates rather than letting the TV stations do it within the context of a competitive marketplace. I talked to Tom Hazlett, who was chief economist at the FCC in the early 1990s and now teaches at George Mason. He says they've been talking about this transition since 1988 (!) and are acting in rough accordance with a law the congresscritters passed in 1996. If the government hadn't decided that only the government could handle this little problem, it probably would have been done years ago and we would never have noticed because it was so smooth.

Did you know the cellphone industry made the switch from analog to digital a few years ago. Did you notice? Was it a big problem? No, because it was handled in the marketplace.

Here's the Register's angry editorial.

Excluding the exclusionary rule

Here is the Register's editorial on the recent U.S. v. Herring Supreme Court decision, which decided that the exclusionary rule did not apply in the case of a guy who came in to get some personal stuff from an impounded truck. A police officer thought there might be a warrant and asked the clerk to check. No warrant in that county, but they checked a neighboring Alabama county and the database showed a warrant and they went out, pulled him over and found meth and a gun he wasn't authorized to have as a felon. Then word came from the neighboring county that the warrant had been pulled but the info not entered on the database. Thus the search was unwarranted, but the court decided not to exclude the results of the search since the error was not purposeful or aimed at Herring.

After talking to Roger Pilon at Cato, I concluded that although it was a close call, the decision was correct because the exclusionary rule is designed to guard against police misconduct and this was an honest mistake rather than outright misconduct. Herring was guilty (although of offenses that shouldn't have been crimes, but that's a different issue).

My old friend Steve Chapman disagrees.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bruins hang on. Whew!

That was the kind of game you love to see if you're not invested in either team, but if you're rooting for one side or another it's a little tough to watch. The Bruins hung on to beat WSU 61-59, but it wasn't very convincing. They dominated in stretches but were in jeopardy when it came time to close it out. I think Darren Collison remembered the collapse against Arizona State and took it upon himself to make sure it didn't happen again, and he made two of three down the stretch to stay ahead; then the team did play good defense on the last play.

I think they'll need to play better to beat Washington, which is leading USC 31-30 at the half as I write. Looking forward to Saturday.

Facing the Cougars -- bouncing back?

Some may have noticed that I didn't post immediately after the Bruins lost to Arizona State on Saturday. It's pretty tough to win when you don't score a field goal for 12 minutes. ASU's defense was good -- they use a fairly complex zone -- but there was something fundamentally wrong with the way the Bruins approached the end of the game. They don't seem to have that closing instinct yet, though some of the Freshmen have definitely come a long way. But after that loss, I feel a little bit of trepidation. I think the Bruins on the right night could beat almost any team in the country, but there's also a tendency to play down to the competition, which truly great teams seldom do.

All that is prologue to worrying a bit about tonight's game with Washington State. The Cougars have often posed problems for the Bruins, for reasons I don't fully understand. I hope the Arizona State loss was the kind that encourages them to redouble their efforts to play smarter rather than the kind that allows them and others to get the idea that they are vulnerable. We'll get a start on assessing that tonight.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The more things change . . .

I guess it's becoming something of a refrain with me, but the notion that we can't expect much change in foreign policy from Barack Obama was the subject of my column this week. The tone will surely be different, but he's escalating in Afghanistan and called four Middle East leaders today to assure them that the U.S. will continue to stick its nose in their business. Heck, he's even squabbling with Hugo Chavez. The best hope, perhaps, is that throwing money at domestic problems and the worldwide crisis that will have China less eager to lend us money just might leave the U.S. too broke to do much mischief in the world at large.

Remarkably flat inaugural

Given the pre-hype and the expectations, I thought the inaugural itself was rather flat. DiFi was a good MC, but it went downhill from there. Poor Aretha, who used to be so marvelous, shouldn't sing in public anymore unless this was a fluke. And that poet was just lame -- that's a recent tradition worthy of abandonment. The Perlman-Ma-etc. quartet was excellent, however. And Pres. Obama's speech was more workmanlike than eloquent. And while he invokes some nice values, he clearly thinks that government is the engine of the economy rather than the other way around. Here's the Register's editorial, in which we politely take exception to his idea of a government-centric society, and some other reporting. launch party a success

The launch party last night, for the new national freedom-oriented Website sponsored by Freedom Communications, Inc., the Register's parent company, was a remarkable success. I have to admit the Steve Greenhut, who managed the affair, knows how to put on a party. I think about 100 people came through, the food was good, there was plenty of beer and cigars, and people talked animatedly throughout the evening. Of course it's much too early to tell whether a successful launch party translates into lots of hits. But we'll take the successful party.

Tibor Machan spoke, reminding us that historically speaking freedom is still a fairly young concept and one shouldn't give in to pessimism. Among those in atendance were OC Supervisor Chris Norby, representatives from other elected officials' offices, Jim Riordan of Seven Locks Press, Larry Gilbert and Art Pedroza, who blog at Orange Juice, Register Publisher Terry Hornes and Freedom VP Jon Segal, Steve Frates from the Rose Institute, OC Business Journal's Rick Rieff, Nick Berardino, who heads the county employees' union, and lots of others. I finally met Scott Horton, who does radio and interviews for and we talked about getting together for an interview.

All in all, a nice time.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009 launch party

I am very much looking forward to the launch party tonight for Freedom Communications' (and the Register's, mostly) new national site, I invited Scott Horton, who just moved into the area and does radio for to come; I've been on his radio show a few times but never met him until tonight. Tibor Machan will be there, and we're expecting David Nott from the Reason Foundation and various other luminaries pof varying degrees of brightness. And beer, Italian food and cigars, of course. Will report later -- maybe not tonight if I come home exhausted.

Covering the inauguration

My main responsibility -- and it is the new age of responsibility, after all -- was to the people who cut my paycheck today, so I will direct you to the Register's Orange Punch blog for ruminations on what was, especially following the build-up, a rather flat inauguration ceremony. Here's today's Register editorial anticipating the inauguration. I also found a blog by Will Wilkinson, who edits Cato's at-liberty blog, who live-blogged the ceremony with a nice sardonic edge. Also David Boaz's dissenting prelude.

Bye, bye Bushie

Dubya has proven to be remarkably pathetic in his last few days in office, giving lame campaign speeches in hopes of burnishing his legacy. Perhaps even more pathetic have been the conservative columnists and writers who somehow have stayed toadies to the very end, trying to argue that this quintessential mediocrity, this remarkably unreflective and simple-minded man, deserves to be thought of as some kind of a great leader. It demonstrates to me a sick devotion to war as the noblest endeavor of humankind -- at least when undertaken by other peoples' children. Here's the Register's editorial on his final press conference.

The Price of Everything

Although I've met several of the gang in the economics dept. at George Mason U, to my knowledge I haven't met Russell Roberts. But I can strongly recommend his books, as I did in this Register review of his new book, "The Price of Everything." I haven't read "The Choice," but I did read "The Invisible Heart." Improbably enough these are all novels -- though they are novels intended to teach the reader a bit of basic economics in a relatively painless way -- and they actually have interesting stories with believable and sympathetic three-dimensional characters. Over the years I have made several stabs at writing a novel and each time have decided that it's just not my thing. I'm glad that an economist of Roberts's abilities has the knack for writing stories.

MLK: We forget the importance of non-violence

In almost none of the media stuff I've seen today is there much mention of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s commitment to non-violence, yet it was a key to his character -- and his effectiveness. He was certainly one of the half-dozen most consequential Americans of the last half-century or so, yet he held no office and practiced non-violent demonstration and confrontation exclusively. Yet we see most people today committed either explicitly or implicitly to violence, especially when they seek the power of the State to bend others to their will. Here's the Register's editorial on the celebration of his birthday.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Inauguration overload already

Is it just me, or is there even more hype for the presidential inauguration than usual this year. Of course the fact that Obama is the one has something to do with it, but the imperial presidency has been building for a long time, with most presidents reaching out for just a bit more unaccountable power whenever they have the chance. And the news media support the build-up, supporting, even when they do a segment on how there may be just too many challenges, the implicit notion that presidents are somehow close to superhuman.

I heard one caster say Obama represents the best of all of us today. Sheeeesh!! He's been the most successful climper of the slippery pole of power in a notably disreputable trade, politics. To see politicians rather than scientists, artists, writers, inventors or entrepreneurs as representing the best of us represents a profoundly twisted and unhealthy view of reality. It was bad enough to identify a pop singer as the American Idol.

Here's the piece I did for the Register's Sunday Commentary section on the challenges Obama will face. It would be a healthier country if all a president had to do was administer the executive branch and see to it that the laws are faithfully executed instead of being the First Inspirer, theb First Teacher and the First Buddy.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Bruins rounding into shape

Well, as I expressed before, I wasn't sure about this year's edition of the UCLA basketball team, and they have lost a couple of games they probably shouldn't have lost. Clearly, none of the freshmen, not even the highly touted Jrue Holliday, measures up to what Kevin Love, now in the NBA, was able to do last year as a freshman. But then Kevin Love, in retrospect, looked like a man among boys from his first game. He is a rare combination of talent and game savvy of a kind that doesn't come along very often.

After watching the team dismantle Arizona (which is admittedly in a down cycle this year thanks to the ill-timed retirement of coach Lute Olsen) Wednesday night, I'm beginning to fantasize about another trip to the Final Four. My first impression was that they weren't spectacular, playing mostly a perimeter passing game with less cutting and driving to the basket than I like to see. But at almost 60% shooting (41% from three-point-land), they were certainly efficient. Josh Shipp is more consistent than he was early in the season and Darren Collison is spectacular.

Big test tomorrow against Arizona State, which was picked to finish second and will be motivated after losing to USC.


I might as well do this slightly indirectly, by linking to this post from my former colleague John Seiler. Freedom Communications is starting a new Website called It will feature blogs and contributions from people all over the Freedom chain, as well as plenty of guest writers and bloggers. It grew out of a meeting among editorial writers from all over the chain a couple of years ago. Freedom is a large corporation, probably with more bureaucracy than necessary, like most businesses, even after recent downsizing, so it seemed as if it took forever to get it done. But the official launch is Tuesday: Inauguration Day. Check it out. Please bookmark it and go there often.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Obama will see foreign policy crises too

I know Barack Obama sees the economic crisis as his first priority. As I suggest in this article from the Register's Sunday Commentary section, however, he won't be able to ignore foreign policy or postpone some fairly consequential decisions early on. I mentioned the still-widening implications of the Mumbai terrorist attack -- India and Pakistan are edging closer to outright war -- and the crisis in Gaza. I thought it was a pretty balanced article. For my trouble, of course, I got several phone messages saying I was an Israeli dupe who is oblivious to Palestinian suffering, and a couple saying I was utterly unfair to Israel and maybe am a secret Palestinian. Ah, well. Judge for yourself.

Drug reformers hope; I'm skeptical

Perhaps I should be heartened by the fact that Barack Obama simply said he will get rid of the absurd "don't ask don't tell" policy for gays in the military. It's the issue that practically sank the beginning of the Clinton administration, but Obama seems to think attitudes have changed enough for him to get away with it. Maybe he's overconfident but I hope he's right on this one.

So maybe he really will do something about our absurd drug laws. He has promised that he would stop the DEA from doing raids on patients in states with medical marijuana laws (I love it when liberals are federalists; they may be inconsistent, but it demonstrates the charm of a decentralized system in that it can be used by people of various ideological strains). The Drug Policy Alliance and others are hoping he will keep his promise. This Esquire article suggests reasons both for guarded optimism and skepticism.

I think the choice of Eric Holder is a bad sign; he seems to be a fine man, but he has a terrible record on drug law issues. CNN medical commentator Sanjay Gupta, trial-ballooned for Surgeon General (a post ripe for abolition), as a few writers have noted, seems to buy much of the drug warriors' utterly absurd beliefs about the properties of marijuana. And I think Obama's natural caution may keep him from doing something so drastic as pushing for legalizing marijuana -- although rescheduling might be a possibility. He may also think drug reform is still the "third rail" of American politics, even though medical marijuana outpolled him in Michigan (and George Bush in Montana in 2004).

I remember when Clinton was elected, I was at a DPA conference shortly thereafter, and most of the reformers were almost ecstatic with expectation, figuring the guy who "didn't inhale" would at least be sensible about drug policy if not a big reformer. But the feds set new records for marijuana arrests under Clinton and he appointed Gen. McCaffrey as "drug czar" in a step that made the "war on drugs" more literally warlike. McCaffrey peddled nonsense about marijuana and campaigned actively (and probably illegally) against medical marijuana initiatives.

I hope I'm wrong.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A fun dust-up in the classical world

Well, it might not have the intensity of feuds in the rap world. But my experience associating with mostly but not exclusively classically-oriented musicians over the years is that musicians can be a temperamental lot -- they didn't coin the term divas for opera singers for nothing. Here's a fascinating little flap that is ruffling feathers at the New York Philharmonic.

Seems there's this wealthy businessman, one Gilbert Kaplan, who's a music-lover "with an obsession for Mahler's Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection") -- which I can understand; I've had a similar obsession since seeing it performed at the Hollywood Bowl eons ago -- probably late '50s; there's a place where the horns perform offstage to get an effect Mahler wanted, and it was especially striking outdoors. I have several recordings. I'm partial to Bruno Walter's old recording and Klemperer's is fine too, but I can commend a recent set by David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich.

Anyway, Kaplan, likely in part through making generous donations, has conducted the symphony all over the world, and did so in December at the New York Phil. But some of the musicians rebelled afterwards, suggesting he has little to no ability as a conductor and brings nothing of artistic interest to his conducting. As one of the trombone players put it on his blog: "My colleagues and I gave what we could to this rudderless performance but the evening proved to be nothing more than a simplistic reading of a wonderful piece of music." It became a public stink and Kaplan is not likely to be invited back.

Marvelous! I've played in amatuer bands and orchestras of varying degrees of skill since high school, and I can guarantee the players have opinions about the abilities (or lack thereof) of their conductors, sometimes griping quietly that the dude can't even keep a steady beat, let alone inspire anybody. At the professional level, especially in orchestras that get a lot of guest conductors, I'm sure the opinions are more pungent. Such opinions are usually the stuff of insider scuttlebutt, with a negative opinion occasionally creeping its way into a music magazine article. But in the era of the blogosphere, it becomes something like public record. I like it!

Now, I don't know. Maybe Kaplan is quite adequate. Still, it's a fun flap.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Spending our way to . . . well, you know

Here's the Register's editorial on Barack Obama's speech on economics and the need for an ever-increasing "stimulus" to get us out of the recession. Trouble is, not only must the money be borrowed from an increasingly reluctant China and eventually repaid, it will stoke inflation and direct money away from genuinely productive activities and into politically popular propjects or those with an especially effective interest group behind them. The oldest political trick in the book. So much for "change."

Jerome the Cynical Santa

I didn't get to reproducing this piece from my friend Jerome Stumps before Christmas, for which I apologize, but even after Epiphany I think it has something to say. I have a song from him that I will post as soon as I figure out how. Jerome's pretty hard core, so it's no surprise that the name of the song is "There Ain't No Fix in Politics." Take it away, Jerome!

Political "leaders" throughout the world are turning in their hardly used "fight inflation suits" and are donning instead the well-worn, more cheerful, red and white "feed inflation" Santa suits. Only the stomach padding is not pillows; it's paper currency by the basketful. Those great pillars of wisdom, the politicians, are caving in on the "hold the prices down" line and rationalizing that inflation is the lesser evil, while recession, unemployment, bankruptcies, and falling gross national product is the greater evil. What most people do not know is that politicians now have the power to inflate without limit! Up to now, there were limits -- so it is not correct to compare now with 1929.

Long before this uncontrolled inflationary state arose, an odious brand of Santa Claus economics was spreading throughout the world. By this, I mean the politicians playing St. Nick to all, by way of subsidies, welfare checks, minimum wages, and so-called full employment rules. And such insanity as unemployment benefits that nearly equal employed wage -- with money going to strikers too, so that taxpayers paid for union demands. Other insanities by the government's fairytale financing are foreign aid, and spending in every direction, ad nauseam.

Santa Claus economics brought about a climate of social expectation that in the end cripples the individual, and thus the nation, and now the world. It's what I call the prairie dog phenomenon. In North Dakota there is a national park where signs say: "Please do not feed the prairie dogs because you are only here in the summer, and when you go away they will have become so dependent on handouts they will be unable to fend for themselves, and therefore will starve to death in the winter."

It happens to humans too. Certainly, politicians as well as the majority of other assorted humans do not understand nature's laws. As a result, most people welcome something for nothing and the "not too bright politicians" are willing to offer a supply through campaign promises. These elected "leaders" then proceed to take away from those who produce and give to those who do not produce (the latter includes the politicians themselves). Thus the majority of us come to depend on the handouts; however, in winter economic weather, we shall starve or be killed.

So carry on, oh Santa Claus in every capital, and destroy our way of life itself for many. Treat us like Dakota prairie dogs. But yonder the leaves are turning brown -- and a long winter lies ahead.

As a loyal gesture, I wanted this year to offset the bureaucratic propaganda as well as the traditional Santa Claus concept with the sincere hope of bringing your thoughts and actions in harmony with nature's laws. There is no such thing as something for nothing; therefore, be certain that the recipients of your gifts understand that they have earned them.

More on Obama's CIA blunder -- I think

I wrote a bit more on what I consider the mistake of putting Leon Panetta in charge of the CIA for my column this week. The political establishment seems reconciled to it now, and everybody hopes Panetta is shrewd enough to master the spook bureaucracy. I'm indebted to Amy Zegart at UCLA, author of the recent book, "Spying Blind," (which I haven't read yet but it's now on my list) for talking with me at some length on the phone. She has made something of a specialty of intelligence policy and organization, so she's quite knowledgeable. She is just plain baffled at this decision by Obama, as am I.

Russian-Ukrainian gas dispute has geopolitical aspect

I guess there's a tentative agreement between Ukraine (with implications for Central and Western Europe) over gas pricing and flow to Western Europe, involving international monitors. So the crisis (if it really deserves that moniker) may be over -- for now. I think most people understand there are geopolitical aspects to the dispute that may well trump the economic aspects (though with the world financial crisis having hit energy prices and Russia's economy pretty hard the economic aspect is not trivial). As this Register editorial explains, Russia's desire to remind Ukraine of its energy dependence is tied to deep-rooted Russian fears about invasion, tied to the knowledge that its borders are not well protected by topography, and what it sees, as in the Bush administration push to admit Ukraine to NATO (which most European countries now oppose, in no small part because of a similar gas cut-off three years ago), as U.S. messing about in what has traditionally been known as the "near abroad," which Russia considers vital to its security. If the push for Ukrainian NATO membership continues, expect more of what might be considered as Russian nastiness toward Ukraine.

I wrote about the gas cut-off back in 2006, for, explaining the geopolitical aspects in more detail than I want to do in a blog post. Here's a link.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Madoff breaches trust ... or?

The swindle perpetrated by Bernard Madoff, who has confessed to running an investment Ponzi scheme seems almost like an exclamation point to an era of greed spurred (I believe) by a loose-money Fed and other federal interventions. One way or another the country is unlikely to feel as affluent in the next few years as it has felt in the previous decade or so. Anne Applebaum had some especially thoughtful comments recently, suggesting that a market economy to a great extent runs on trust, and Madoff breached trust big-time and in a public way, and it's likely to make people a little less trusting, perhaps a bit less entrepreneurial for a while. I hope she's wrong, but . . .

Incidentally, there's a theory going around the Internet that Madoff actually didn't run a Ponzi scheme but that his hedge fund lost big-time (as others did) and he concocted the Ponzi story, perhaps because his investors could get compensation for losses to fruad from the government, whereas they couldn't have recouped hedge-fund losses. Seems far-fetched (I'll run donw the links in the next day or so), but what do you think?

No winners in Gaza

I haven't mentioned the Israeli attack in Gaza much except to refer to my article, but I've been reading a lot and talking to a bunch of people. Here is the Register's most recent editorial on the conflict. I'm also finishing up a byline piece for the Sunday Commentary section. I'll be interested to see how it turns out. The thing that strikes me most piquantly about the general topic of Arab-Israeli or Palestinian-Israeli issues is how firmly committed U.S. partisans are to the proposition that their side can do no wrong and the other side can do no right. Any criticism of Israel is likely to be branded anti-Semitic and criticism of Hamas or the Palestinians is taken to be evidence of being an Israeli stooge. Ah, well.

Obama's CIA pick absurd

I think Obama's choice of Leon Panetta to head the CIA is the first utterly ridiculous misstep of his transition, though there have been other mistakes as well (hello, Bill Richardson, hello Rahm talking to Blago's people repeatedly). This one is virtually incomprehensible, suggesting he knows nothing and cares nothing about the CIA. Too bad. There might have been a chance to depoliticize it slightly. Here's the Register's editorial on the pick. There wasn't room to mention that the last pick who was more political then professional, the former GOP congresscritter Porter Goss, was disastrous, but he was. It's likely the CIA will remain ineffectual and probably become a more hidebound bureaucracy. Although I'm not sure how badly I would want a really effective CIA, considering its past of having an expansive notion of what it could be doing inside the U.S.

Michigan bureaucrats mucking up medical marijuana

One of the problems with passing a medical marijuana initiative, as Michigan did last November, is that state bureaucrats and regulators get involved in interpreting and enforcing it, making something intended to be very simple and straightforward quite complex. In addition, while it may be unfair to impute such motives yet, our experience in California -- still struggling for proper implementation after 12 years -- is that some regulatory and law enforcement people who opposed the law in the first place will try to interpret it in ways that effectively nullify it.

When I was writing my book, "Waiting to Inhale," on medical marijuana, I interviewed Dennis Peron, the Calif. initiative's author dozens of times, and he made clear that what he wanted was a simple regimen whereby legitimate patients could get relatively hassle-free access to their medicine. Aside from the mistake of including the term "primary caregiver" in the language, that's what he wrote. But some cops wanted to do an arrest-first-sort-it-out-at-trial policy and others refused to return confiscated medicine. Some clearly hate the law and worked virtually openly to subvert it.

You can see some of this in Michigan now, where they are holding hearings on draft implementation procedures and getting flack both from medical marijuana patients and advocates and the police as well. Some of the rules seem just silly -- requiring patients to keep their medicine in a locked cabinet when there are no similar requirements for prescription medications that are literally hundreds of times more potentially dangerous. And they do seem to go beyond the scope of what the initiative asked the Michigan Department of Community Health to do -- set up a patient registry system, not write a bunch of rules and regulations.

Some of this is the result of the ignorance that always comes from outlawing one of God's creations -- people believe all sorts of complete nonsense about the dangers of marijuana. And some is due to the ridiculously over-bureaucratized society we have become, with legions of overseers who think they have a license to micromanage our lives. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Blago outmaneuvers the respectable ones

I have little doubt that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is at least as crooked as they say, and there's something repellently slimy about him. (I and others may be subject to what psychologists say is a human tendency to place more blame and assume more guilt the higher-up an alleged malefactor is in the political pyramid.) But I confess to a sneaking admiration for the way he has outmaneuvered those who have sought to distance themselves from him, and he has made the leaders of the Senate look ridiculous, which is always welcome.

By appointing Roland Burris, a black former state attorney general who apparently isn't tainted with scandal, he has provoked a latent threat from Senate Majority leader Harry Reid not to seat him. But in this case Blago has the law on his side. He has sole authority to appoint the successor when a senate seat is empty. He may be sleazy, but while he was arrested and charged, he hasn't even been indicted yet. He is legally considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt -- and the case against him might not be that easy to make despite those sinister-sounding wiretap recordings. He hasn't been impeached, and despite the atmosphere in Springfield, that isn't even a sure thing. So there's no remotely legal reason not to seat his appointee.

So Harry Reid has pushed himself into a corner from which he can't emerge without backing away. His knee-jerk reaction was ill-considered and without legal basis. Fun stuff.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Real problems developing

A few weeks ago I suggested that a potentially major crisis involving India, Pakistan and Afghanistan might face the incoming Obama administration, but that otherwise the Imperium’s potential conflict spots seemed to be in a state of relative quiescence. So much for my predictive powers! The Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not really affect the core interests of the U.S., but if it stays in the headlines much longer there will be increasing pressure for the U.S. to get involved one way or another — although it’s hard for me to imagine just what the U.S. could do that would be more stabilizing than destabilizing. When the Bush administration took power, as I remember, it decided not to jump in to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, contenting itself with expressing complete support for Israel but, with the final Clinton effort fresh in memory, simply issuing statements and expending verbiage on a “path to peace.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the Obama admin. does much the same — but my record as a prophet is not exactly pristine.

The empire stands aside

With the Israeli ground invasion of Gaza something like the final nail has been put in the coffin of any last-minute Bush administration hopes that things might move in the direction of a two-state solution before the Bushlet left office have been dashed. It is possible that this is also an "aha!" moment for the American empire as well. Nobody expects the U.S. to be able to do anything constructive, though U.S. minions have been supposedly working for more than a year toward any kind of symbolic rapprochement they might be able to spin into a sign of -progress. Thus the Bush administration winds down with yet another whimper of failure.

Here's my most recent column for musing on the possible meaning of an impotent empire.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Against football playoffs

I'll be the first to admit that I would enjoy seeing a game between USC and whoever wins the supposed BCS "championship" game next week. I supect USC would win, perhaps handily. Pete Carroll really knows how to get a team operating at close to peak effriciency at the end of the season. But unlike a lot of fans I have little desire to see a true or even semi-authentic playoff system for college football. Why does there have to be an unambiguous single national champion? It would take way too long to do a proper elimination tournament as in basketball. And tournaments can have quirks just as easily as a decentralized bowl system, with a superior team having on off day or an inferior team getting a lot of turnovers or whatever and winning a game it would lose eight times out of ten. With a bunch of bowls, a lot of teams get to revel in postseason success.

Perhaps not incidentally, having a bunch of bowls -- unlikely to change because so many commercial interests are involved -- makes the college football post-season a bit more like economic competition than athletic competition. Confusion between the two is endemic. In athletics competition leads to a clear winner and a clear loser. In economic competition you don't have to have the most market share -- or whatever definition makes you Number One -- to be successful. You just have to have more revenues than expenses (or even just realistic prospects of being there next year), and the Number Seven market-share company might have the highest profit margin. It's nice to have numerous paths to success rather than a pyramid-type tourney in which only one team is the winner and the rest, no matter how much they improved or exceeded expectations, are viewed as losers