Monday, June 30, 2008

Middle East without Uncle Sam

Here's a link to my latest piece for It notes the fact that some baby steps toward peace between Israel and her neighbors are underway -- and that the U.S., described by so manmy as the essential "honest broker" in the Middle East (though most in the Middle East consider the U.S. to be Israel's lap dog, not always justly, but that's the perception) had little or nothing to do with any of them. Imagine a Middle East without U.S. presence and influence. People would have to resolve their own problems! With U.S. influence seriously on the wane thanks to the stupid war in Iraq, they're starting to do so.

Watching you and me

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on video surveillance, a virtually pervasive situation in the UK and increasingly prevalent in the U.S. Who cares if nothing happens if we're doing nothing wrong? It curtails individuality and spontaneity and eccentricity, without which a society is immeasurably poorer. It's one of the reasons I'm likely to live out my days in small towns rather than big cities. And we cite studies that suggest strongly that it doesn't even reduce crime. But it does curtail freedom.

Sharon Isbin in the Amazon

I have a new (probably temporary) couple of favorite lie-in-the-pool-and-float (or swim gently) music (with the way the weather has been in Southern California -- another week of triple-digits in Lake Elsewhere -- Jen and I have been spending time there). Some years ago guitarist Sharon Isbin made a CD called "Journey to the Amazon." Naturally, it's Brazilian music -- samba and samba-like -- with intricate guitar passages executed with fleet-fingered accuracy by the estimable Ms. Isbin (I have another CD of her doing the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez with the NY Phil and it's superb too. Some dances, some slower and more contemplative songs, all delightful, some guitar solos, some with soprano sax or flute, some with exotic jungle-like percussion. Relaxing and stimulating at the same time -- but then I've always liked Brazilian music.

Manhattan Transfer has a CD called "Symphony Sessions," with a respectably-sized orchestra -- but the attraction as always with them are the close jazz harmonies sung note-perfect but with that infectious swing that makes it all sound as if they made it up on the spot (I know they didn't; I've sung numerous jazz arrangements and it takes a lot of work to make it sound spontaneous). Now when people ask me my favorite version of "Route 66" (it actually came up in our office a few weeks ago) I say it's the Manhattan Transfer version -- no disrespect to the real "King." "Down in Birdland" and "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square are especially fine also.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Some DC v. Heller background

As I've mentioned previousoy, the direct hero of DC v. Heller is BobLevy, the Cato-affiliated lawyer who financed and directed the case. Almost every decision he made -- I talked to him by phone during most of the process -- turns out to have been a good one. But much of the intellectual groundwork was laid by various scholars -- some acadmically affiliated, some independent -- who have painstakingly constructed the case for the understanding that the Second Amendment protects an individual right, not a collective right that can only be exercised in the context of an organized militia. The founders understood full well that one of the reasons for citizens to be armed was to provide an effective deterrent to tyrannical domestic government. But gun control (actually people control) was long the preferred cure-all for crime among the better sort, and a generation of academics grew up with the militia-only version drummed into them.

Creating a comprehensive case for an individual-rights version of the Second Amendment being the more authentic interpretation has involved some heavy intellectual lifting.

It must have been 10 years ago that I attended a seminar put on for Academics for the Second Amendment, organized by the inestimable Don Kates. There I learned a great deal more about the work of Stephen Halbrook, along with Joyce Malcolm, Gary Kleck, and, of course, Don Kates himself, as an editor and writer, and many others.They were precursors to more recent lawyers and law profs making various aspects of the case, including Eugene Volokh and Randy Barnett, who were cited in Scalia's majority opinion.

US-Vietnam relations almost normal

President Bush met last week with Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung (no, I didn't make that name up). A bunch of protesters beggd to differ with the Bushlet's assessment that the Vietnamese are making progress on human rights, especially when it comes to religious freedom. The protesters were right, but it's still the wisest policy to have as open a relationship with Vietnam as possible -- tariffs and other trade barriers down to zero, etc. Here's the Register's editorial to that effect. After a long period of trying to abide by communist orthodoxy, Vietnam has grudgingly moved toward a market-type economy and is starting to see economic improvement and some foreign investment. Can't give you a timetable, but free trade is the best way to create pressure in a politically rigid society toward more effective freedom.

Henry Samueli -- flawed but . . .?

Here is the Register's editorial on the guilty plea last Monday of Henry Samueli, co-founder of Broadcom (which makes chips for iPhones and other mostly portable devices). He ended up pleading guity of lying to investigators about back-dating stock options. Plea-bargained to a $12 million fine and five years probation. He and his co-founder Henry Nicholas -- under indictment for more serious stuff mostly related to backdating but also drug-related charges (including giving drugs to other without their knowledge, which I view as wrong whether it's crime or not). Feet of clay and all that. Thing is, Henry Samueli, worth about $2 billion now, has been a generous philanthropist -- the small theater in the new concert hall is named for him and his wife, he's kept Opera Pacific open, my son defrayed some of his college tuition with a Samueli grant, he gave so much the engineering schools at both UC Irvine and UCLA are named after him, he owns the Mighty Ducks. Sad situation bordering on tragic.

No low-maintenance yard

Years ago, when we had put the major features in place and planted most of the trees, I told my brother-in-law Mike that we were going for a low-maintenance yard. He laughed in my face!. Well, he was right, of course. It keeps us busy every weekend, trimming oleanders or picking up leaves or planting new trees or bulbs or . . . And in triple-digit temperatures. Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun. And pre-codgers, I guess.

At least the pool is cooling and refreshing, and we used it wisely tody -- meaning fairly often. And most of the eucalyptus bark that blew off recently is safely in trash cans.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Supreme triumph!

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the Supreme Court's decision in the DC v. Heller case that affirmed that the right "to keep and bear arms" is an individual right of fairly broad scope, not contingent on serving in a militia. I'll have much more to say, but for now, this is a tremendous victory for the concept of individual rights and individual freedom, and shows that the concept still has some traction in the U.S. Bob Levy, the Cato-affiliated lawyer who financed the case deserves the primary credit, but a lot of scholars over the last 20 years or so did yeoman work researching, writing and publicizing in order to establish that individual rights is historically the default position for the Second Amendment.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Zimbabwe's misery

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the decision of opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai to step down in the run-off presidential race in Zimbabwe. The reason, of course, is that the forces of the president, Robert Mugabe, who still controls the government, have been intimidating, beating up and killing (at least 80 dead) Tsvangirai supporters since the original election in May, which Tsvangirai probably won if there had been anything close to an honest ballot count.

Mugabe has become one of the world's most ruthless and destructive dictators. He has taken a country (formerly Rhodesia if you remember) that was one of the more prosperous African countries and turned it into a poverty-ridden hellhole. Yet his fondest desire is to hang onto power, probably until he dies. His reign of terror shows the essence of government -- force. Governments try to pretty up the pig with democratic processes and vows of love for the "people," but Mao knew: political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.

The (no longer) fat lady sings

A couple of years ago there was one of those rare kerfuffles in the classical music world that made it into the general news for a moment or two. The Royal Opera House at Covent Garden informed soprano Deborah Voigt that she was not wanted for a contracted engagement to sing the lead in Richard Strauss's opera "Ariadne auf Naxos." The reason. It was one of those updated director-centric productions in modern dress, and Ariadne was expected to wear a chic little black cocktail dress, and Ms. Voight was, not to put too fine a point on it, too fat to look credible. Everybody acknowledged that she had the pipes; she is one of the best in our times in the "heavier" dramatic soprano repertoire of Wagner, Strauss, et. al. But she just wouldn't be able to look the part of the sleek temptress the director had in mind.

Well, people wrote op-eds and took sides as to whether this was invidious discrimination or understandable artistic integrity on the Royal Opera's part. Ms. Voigt herself said little beyond expressing disappointment. But afterward, largely for health reasons, she decided to slim down with a serious diet and exercise program.

And earlier this month, she sang Ariadne at Covent Garden -- in the same production, in that little black dress, or something like it. It's a nice coda to the story. Critics loved it.

The NYT story notes: "Some opera buffs and critics detect a slight loss of warmth in her sound. Others counter that her voice has gained brightness and shimmer. It's natural for voices to change colorings as a singer matures, though most tend to become darker and weightier over time. Ms. Voigt admits that the process of adjusting to a different-size 'resonating chamber,' as she put it, took longer than she anticipated."

There are opera buffs who think fairly seriously that only overweight sopranos can negotiate the demands of the heftier dramatic roles in Wagner, and even some Verdi, that you just need that heft to have a darker tone in the higher ranges. I hope Deborah Voigt proves them wrong.

Remembering George Carlin

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the death of George Carlin, a fond one -- and perhaps fonder than some of our commenters would have preferred. I suppose there were two George Carlin's (maybe more): one who was angry about many aspects of American life, or maybe life in general, but found ways to complain that were really funny, and one who was more gentle, and just amused at life's oddities (Why does everybody have two pennies in their middle desk drawer? Why do we drive on the parkway but park on the driveway?). Perhaps most of all he was a sometimes frustrated lover of the English language, that magnificent vehicle for communication which -- partly because it has borrowed from so many other languages, partly because some expressions become idioms even if they don't make much sense -- contains within itself delightful contradictions and absurdities. I think you have to love the language to do the things George Carlin did with it.

I really loved his riff on football vs. baseball (I happen to like football better, maybe because I played it with a certain amount of gusto and was lousy at baseball). I'm not much of a pop culture vulture, so my memories are mostly from his network appearances; I didn't watch any of his HBO specials, so I have no informed opinion on whether he got more dyspeptic as he got older. I'll miss him.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Do-it-yourself Mideast peace?

Israel just signed a cease-fire with Hamas and is negotiating with Syria. It's also negotiating with Hezbollah seeking the return of the two soldiers whose capture set off the ill-advised (on Israel's part) 2006 war with Hezbollah. What's going on. This Register editorial suggests that it has a great deal to do with the weakened position the U.S. occupies in the Middle East thanks to the Iraq war. So the parties are doing their own negotiating. Any truce between Israel and a group still devoted to its destruction is fragile, but it's something. Maybe if the U.S. resists the impulse to guide and micromanage things will get even better.

Red wine and aging

Here's a piece of evidence for intelligent design, or maybe the proposition that God is benevolent (Benjamin Franklin once suggested that the existence of beer is the best demonstration that God loves us). It turns out that red wine may be even more potent than previously understood in slowing down the aging process. It turns out that the resveratrol in red wine (not, alas, in white) by doing something similar to what calorie-restriction might do: switching the body's resources from fertility to tissue maintenance. It seems to be rooted in an ancient famine-survival mechanism.

Better to do it with wine than with starving oneself? Alas, the mice tests have used far higher doses than is found in wine itself. More discrete tests may show differently but based on what is known today, you might have to drink yourself into a daily stupor and them some to get enough resveratrol to have a significant impact. But people are developing capsules -- harder than you might think because it's apparently a fragile compound.

Still, a couple of glasses a day couldn't hurt (unless you're an alcoholic) and there are other health benefits too. Cheers!

Same-sex marriage in California -- smooth so far

Here is a link to the Register's editorial on the beginning of legal same-sex marriage in California. We observed that it has gone fairly calmly so far -- oh, there was some joke yelling at the first couple in Beverly Hills that they "burn in hell," but such incidents have actually been fairly rare. Both sides in the issue that will be on the ballot in November, to make man-woman marriages the only kind the state recognizes as part of California's already-cumbersome constitution rather than simply a statute, as was done in 2000,m have reasons not to alienate voters with too much flamboyance of disturbances.

We again defend the California Supremes' decision on equality-before-the-law grounds (having actually read the decision and all the dissents). I'm fascinated that among our commenters are several defenders of gay marriage. I don't know. It's been eight years since the last vote and opinions are changing. The Field Poll shows, for the first time, a 51 percent bare majority in favor of gay marriage. Of course the campaign hasn't started yet. But I'm not sure that initiative is a sure thing.

War and Inflation

Few people can get to the point in a simple and persuasive way as well as Lew Rockwell of the Mises Institute. Here's a link to a piece he did, based on a talk he delivered, on the connections, many of them that few people think about, between war and inflation. It is also a more detailed explanation of something that mystified many observers of the Ron Paul campaign: Why he kept talking about eliminating the Federal Reserve, which few people saw as related at all to his desire to get out of Iraq and have a considerably humbler, non-interventionist foreign policy, but as some sort of gold-bug crank issue.

As Lew demonstrates, however, a central bank with a monopoly over producing currency, however the keepers of the conventional wisdom may proclaim that it's role is to fight inflation, is precisely a mechanism for creating inflation. Thus governments can achieve spending power through inflation of a much greater magnitude than through taxes, because at some point people will resist taxation. That spending power has made possible the U.S.'s aggressive foreign policy -- which began, it's worth noting a few years after the Fed was created in 1913. The government couldn't finance endless wars through taxes; people would revolt. So it finances them through deficits and inflation.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Scott McCllellan: media defensiveness

Here's a link to my most recent piece for Perhaps a little late to the topic (though he did testify in the House Friday). What struck me -- well one of the things -- about the response to Scott McClellan's tell-quite-a-bit book, "What Happened," was how defensive some of the media were about Scott describing them as pretty pliant to the White House spin during the run-up to the war. Well, of course they were. I try to explain some of the reasons they were.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Midwest floods another reason to dump ethanol

Note that in the Register's editorial on the Midwest floods, usually empathetic boilerplate in the case of most disasters, we took the occasion to call yet again for an end to the ethanol program. It jhust makes sense to me; crops are going to be down, so using any of them for ethanol in the middle of a world food crisis that the U.S. is likely toi feel in even higher food prices, would be incredibly perverse. But I don't think many other newspapers caught the connection.

Baden-Baden Festpielhaus goes private

In the heart of art-subsidizing Europe, the Baden-Baden Festpielhaus, in the Black Forest, a 2,500-seat concert hall, has found success as a nonprofit that (save for long-term payoff for the construction of the hall 10 years ago) gets not a cent of government money. It took a while. At first they just overcharged for tickets for top-drawer attractions and drew meager audiences. Then a new director (Andreas Moelich-Zebhauser) took over and started producing innovative events, and lowered ticket prices and balanced the budget. The haus has developed relationships with conductors like Valery Gergiev, Thomas Hengelbrock, Claudio Abbado and others. The NY Phil comes over every year for a concert series. The place has developed a reputation for quality, which makes it attractive to music lovers in a country where almost everything else is subsidized but (as you might expect from a bloated public-sector enterprise) "inevitably produces much mediocrity," as this NYT story puts it. The upshot is that private financing gives it more artistic freedom and incentives to be innovative in a high-quality way. There's accountability.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Another inadequate reason for war

The investment of some people with claims to expertise in the Iraq war means that however inept the administration itself might be at justifying the war, there is a ready coterie of writers eager to come up with rationales. Of course, this means that the stated justifications for war among the chattering classes keep changing, but that doesn't bother the true believers. Any novelty will do.

One of the latest to come up with yet another "real" reason the United States government, or to be a little more pinpoint, George W. Bush, started this conflict is Fouad Ajami, writing for the reliably pro-war Wall Street Journal. In his op-ed piece, he claims it was really a war of deterrence:

The country was "gripped by legitimate concern over gathering dangers in the aftermath of 9/11. Kabul and the war against the Taliban had not sufficed. A war of deterrence had to be waged against Arab radicalism, and Saddam Hussein had drawn the short straw. He had not ducked, he had not scurried for cover. He openly mocked America's grief, taunted its power."

We had to go to war because a small-time thug was -- gasp!! -- taunting us? Is the world a fourth-grade schoolyard? Well, Ajami claims, there was more to it:

"We don't need to overwork the stereotype that Arabs understand and respond to the logic of force, but this is a region sensitive to the wind, and to the will of outside powers. Before America struck into Iraq, a mere 18 months after 9/11, there had been glee in the Arab world, a sense that America had gotten its comeuppance. There were regimes hunkering down, feigning friendship with America while aiding and abetting the forces of terror."

Leave aside the easy imputation of unanimity to the "Arab world." Ajami doesn't name the regimes. Maybe Saudi Arabia, still maintaining its "special relationship," fits the bill, but never mind. Suppose several regimes were secretly abetting terrorists. Does that justify starting a war of aggression, which the Iraq war most definitely was? Does it make the war one of "necessity," as Ajami retrospectively wants to make it? Was the only other choice to give the aggressor (presumaby he means al-Qaida) "what he seeks"? Did making Iraq an example make the other Arab countries trust us more, or desire more strongly to be allied with the U.S.?

Even under Ajami's late-blooming justification, this was what international law theorists call a "preventive" war as distinguished from a "preemptive" war. A preemptive war is started when an enemy has signaled an intention to begin hostilities imminently, e.g, by massing troops on the border or activating pilots. A preventive war is waged to prevent a problem or hostility that might (or might not) materialize somewhere down the road, years or even decades away. International law theorists view it as unjustified, as an act of aggression. The U.S. used to claim it only engaged in wars to deter or punish aggression, that were always attacked first. However truthful that was, the administration and its apologists don't bother with that justification anymore. We can start wars because people are taunting and deceiving us, and might actually do something concrete sometime. We're the world's policeman, and we don't have a Fourth Amendment to keep us in line. But empires pay for their arrogance eventually.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Constitution vindicated

The ruling by the Supreme Court allowing the Guantanamo detainees to file habeas corpus motions in U.S. courts was welcome, perhaps even overdue. Here's a link to the Register editorial commending it; note that we got more critical comments than praise from readers. I think it explains the importance of habeas corpus to a society with any hope of being free pretty well. I'm frankly shocked that conservatives especially, at least those who claim to have any respect at all for the U.S. Constitution, could be so critical, but most of them are positively apoplectic. It's another example of how war warps peoples' judgment and endangers liberty.

It is simply breathtaking how thoroughly the Bush administration has distorted the constitutional order and expanded executive power to an extent even Hamilton, the founder most friendly to executive power, who commended "energy in the executive," would find downright shocking. To think that the Bushies thought they could just hold people indefinitely, some for 6 years, without charges or access to anything resembling an impartial arbiter. Even the military prosecutors first assigned to prosecute detainees were shocked at how blatantly the administration politicized the process, and several have quit and criticized the process severely.

The Bushies have been slapped hard by the high court, a sign that there is still some durability in the Madisonian separation of powers arrangement designed to protect liberty -- not that it's perfect, but it still sometimes works. The Bushies brought it on themselves, with their arrogant determination not to classify them as POWs or to offer anything resembling due process. It's quite possible that there's no reason for Guantanamo to be kept open any longer now. The administration obviously chose it so they could argue that it wasn't on U.S. soil, so the constitution didn't apply. I would say shockingly cynical but nothing this administration does shocks me any more. The Supremes shot that one down. Here's a link to a Scotusblog post with links to a variety of coverage and commentary, and a pretty good summary.

I talked to Tim Lynch over at Cato, and he stressed what had been in the Cato amicus brief: that the key was not whether Guantanamo is U.S. soil, but that the Supreme Court has jurisdiction over the president and secretary of defense, so it can prevent them from denying habeas corpus wherever in the world they give orders to do so. Otherwise they could simply move prisoners to foreign soil and mistreat them at will. Tim found one sentence in the 70-page decision he thought came close to expressing his view: that the scope of habeas corpus "must not be subject to manipulation by those whose power it is designed to restrain," but it's not explicit enough to suit me.

I'll miss Tim Russert

Especially given all the obvious and sincere grief expressed over at NBC, I'm hardly alone and it's almost a cliche. But Tim Russert was far and away the best of the former political operatives who have been converted to TV news types. Despite his background as a Dem (worked for Mario Cuomo and Daniel P. Moynihan), which occasionally showed through, he made a pretty good effort to be impartial. He was the best questioner on TV, backed up by serious research into previous statements and positions pols had made or taken. An interviewer hardly ever gets an "aha, I nailed him!" moment from experienced politicians who are practiced in the art of evasion and answers that sound good but don't mean much when you analyze them later, but Tim got several of those, generally as a result of being prepared. By all reports he was a genuinely decent human being. And he was from Buffalo, where my wife is from, a town I've spent a lot of mostly pleasant time in and which I could like a lot except for the weather.

I blogged about him over at Orange Punch this afternoon. This post has links to comments from all over the Web and elsewhere.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

US and Europe disgraceful at food summit

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the UN "food summit" in Rome last week. It wouoldn't make anything near the whole difference, but it would make a difference to maybe a 100,000 more people likely to go hungry this year if the "developed" countries put their ethanol and biofuel programs on hiatus for a while -- though it would be better for the world if they just scrapped them. Ending their farm programs that so generously and unjustly overpay their farmers would make a huge difference over time. But the governments in all those countries are overgrown, but paralyzed by their addiction to serving special interests. They're big but stupid and stubborn in their stupidity -- and that makes them, when it comes to the results of their blundering, blind and ultimately callous toward the suffering they cause for others.

The Celtics were impressive

It hurts my heart to type this out, but maybe, just maybe, the Celtics are just a better team than the Lakers this year. All through the playoffs, right up the the finals, even when games were close and a case could be made that luck played a role, I have been confident that the Lakers were simply the better team in each series. Now I'm not so sure.

I don't know why the Lakers lost energy and momentum in thje second half, but you have to give the Celtics all kinds of credit. I'm sure Kobe will figure some things out and be more effective in the next game, but in this game both Ray Allen were able to guard him effectively and prevent him from getting easy shots. In the second half Odom, who had been so strong in the first half, seemed to disappear, but a lot of that can be attributed to the Celtics defense too. The Lakers looked like a bunch of guys on a playground who had just met one another and decided to play a little ball for the exercise. At least in the second half.

I never abandon all hope, but this just might be the Celtics' year, and you can't help but feel that Garnett, Allen, and especially Pierce, after years on losing teams, just might be more determined to get the ring when they're so tantalizingly close. The Lakers will be a very good team for a number of years, especially if Bynum comes back and contributes the way he did in the middle of the season before he was injured, and are likely to win some championships. But this might just be the Celtics' year.

Did I just write that? I do still have a shred or two of hope? Go Lakers!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Jerry Brown politicizing medicine

Here's a link to the post I did on the decision by Calif. Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown (looking more and more like his father every day) to challenge a decision by a Calif. appeals court to invalidate the provision of California's SD 420, intended to implement the Prop. 215 medical marijuana initiative, that set limits/guidelines/whatever for how many plants a patient could have. The court correctly ruled that Prop. 215, which didn't have limits, was passed by the people as an initiative, and can only be changed through the initiative process. So the legislated limit was of course illegiotimate.

Brown would make better use of his authority as attorney general to direct police agencies to adopt uniform practices regarding patients, to wit, no arrest if you have a doctor's recommendation rather than arresting and "letting the courts sort it out." The courts have been pretty clear: however reluctant the police may be -- and many agencies and individual cops are still dragging their feet after 12 years, trying to nullify the law through sheer harassment -- their obligation is to enforce California's law and facilitate the use of medical marijuana for patients with a recommendation from a duly-licensed physician.

As I know from research for my book, "Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana," the drafters of Prop. 215 intended for decisions about the amount a patient uses to be decided between patients and doctors, not by cops, judges or attorneys general.

That's more like it!

It wasn't always easy to watch, and for a while there in the third quarter (I'll admit it) I was close to wondering whether the Celtics Curse had really been dispatched in the 1980s. But the Lakers stayed with it, pulled ahead and squeaked out a win, 87-81. Kobe was spectacular and this game Vujajcic stepped up with 20 points. They needed it because Pau and Lamar both had subpar games (though give the Celtics defense some credit) -- though they both hit some key baskets toward the end, which I hope is a good sign for the next game. Lakers only down 2-1, with

One good thing about my brother-in-law living with us so long is that he organized the crew to put together our quasi-outdoor room, where I can watch games and yell, scream, smoke and cuss without bothering anybody

Senate privatizes its restaurants

This one is mainly kinda fun, but I think has more significance than is often realized. The U.S. Senate, in a quiet voice vote late at night last week, decided to privatize its restaurant. Here's the Register editorial on the event. Seems the hallowed Senate restaurants had lost money 37 of the last 41 years and was set to lose $2 million this year. Meantime the House restaurant, privatized in the 1980s (also by a Democratic Congress) was not only turning a profit and paying the House a hefty share, its food waa so much better that Senate employees routinely took the tunnel to patronize it. So the private sector -- even when working on a government contract, which is not a pure free-market situation, delivers better than the public sector. The Senate knows that from sad experience, but plans to increase the public-sector involvement in health care. Makes a lot of sense.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Trying to keep the music going

The music I like best, what is popularly called classical, along with jazz, has never been all that popular, and certainly never a major profit center for recording companies -- and it seems to me that it is almost inexorably getting less so. In the 1940s and '50s, I think it was more prevalent in semi-pop culture than it is now. TV shows, including Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson, regularly featured classical artists, there was the Firestone Hour, and a general sense in what elitists derided as middlebrow culture that while it might be a hard slog, a person really should try to listen to that highbrow stuff once in a while if he/she wanted to be respectably cultured. My sense now is that those who love it are simply blown off as queer ducks, far from somebody whose tastes are to be emulated. Ah, well!

Anyway, this sense gives me and interest in how those who purvey this kind of music are trying to survive in such culturally desolate times. It turns out that Sony, which owns what used to be Columbia and a bunch of other old labels, has been ransacking its files for photos of artists it has recorded. There are apparently images of hundreds who recorded at the company's 30th Street Studio from the 1940s on. They're making art-quality reproductions at $300-up, but are likely to find ways to sell more modestly-priced prints as well. Of course they figure they'll make their biggest money on pop and rock photos -- Dylan, Cash -- but they think there's a market for Miles Davis, Count Basie, and some classical artists too.

Meantime Universal Classics and Jazz, which is the worldwide leader in the apparently shrinking classical CD market, has formed Universal Music Classical Artists Management and Productions. They've already signed soprano Anna Netrebko and mezzo Elina Garanca, soprano Karita Mattila, tenor Joseph Calleja, and baritone Thomas Hampson. Tenor Rolando Villazon is said to be interested. Hope there are efficiencies in having the same company manage the concert careers of artists and trying to peddle their CDs too.

Food entrepreneurs to the fore

Here's a phenomenon I haven't seen any other comment about, though of course I don't see everything. The NYT had an article last week about how various investment groups, in light of the world food crisis, are going beyond trading in commodities and investing directly in farmland in Africa, Brazil and elsewhere, and other things important to the farm business, like grain elevators, cargo ships and the like. The Times found a couple of people to fret about how it might upset the culture of agriculture, but on balance, as the Register noted in an editorial today, this strikes me as a generally good thing. It seems to be a case of entrepreneurs and investors doing the classic entrepreneurial thing: find a need and fill it. And the result after a few years is almost certain to be more available food and probably a more stable supply, at lower prices

Obama does make history

Here's a link to the Register's Sunday editorial on what one must admit is the historic nature of Barack Obama's satus as the presumptive Democratic nominee. Like him or not -- and I would probably criticize his every initiative except getting out of Iraq and repealing the Patriot Act -- the fact that a black man has been nominated for president in a country with such a racist past is quite something. (Not that that comment should be meant in as dismissively condemnatory a way as some who use the phrase; every country's history is a mixture of the admirable and the execrable with most somewhat mixed, and on balance I think the admirable in our past outweighs the hideous, and it all shows a capacity for change -- not always beneficial.) And while racism has declined considerably n my lifetime, when I was a kid in Southern California, which was never too much of a racist place, in the 1950s it wasn't considered shocking to hear the or use the "n" word, though my parents didn't and taught us that it wasn't polite or considerate. And remember that most of the resistance to civil rights laws came from Democrats in the 1950s and early '60s because the Solid South was solidly Democratic. There is still more latent racism in this country than most of use would care to admit, but at least it's no longer respectable to voice it. Those are changes I can live with.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Hillary's gracelessness then

Here's a link to the Register's editorial, written Wednesday and printed on Thursday, about Hillary's incredibly graceless performance on Tuesday night. Even though she seems to have recovered somewhat with her concession/whatever speech today, I think that tone-deaf performance took her out of any possibility of getting the vice presidential nomination. And that's a good thing. The Clintons are incredibly solipsistic, to the point that I seriously believe they see other people only as tools or means for them to achieve their ambitions. It would probably be fun, as a journalist, to watch the dysfunctional mess an Obama presidency would be with a Clinton as vice president, scheming and working independently all the time. And perhaps, if you figure a government that can't get anything done is a good thing, since most of the things such and administration would want to do would be terribly harmful to the country and to freedom, that would be a good thing. But it would be somewhat disheartening to watch at the same time.

Live-blogging Hillary's speech

I've been live-blogging Hillary's concession/endorsement/whatever speech over at the Register's Horserace'08 election blog. Bottom line: She went on too long, but she did what she had to do, endorsing Barack semi-persuasively and maintaining her own viability for 2012, 2016 -- or August. I did offer some snarky comments along the way. Check it out if you like.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

How Hillary blew it

There's a post on the Register's election blog, Horserace'08, with links to other articles, that discusses some of what Hillary did wrong and Barack did right to bring about Obama's victory (at least we think she doesn't have anything else up her sleeve). The best (somewhat lengthy) treatment of what went wrong for her I've seen comes from Michelle Cottle over at New Republic. Overconfidence, not recognizing a "change" election, personnel problems (friends more than pros), too many themes, planning for a quick knockout and having no real plan when that didn't work, handling the press poorly, and on and on.

Chacago Symphony gets Mutti

In something of a surprise, the Chicago Symphony has snagged Riccardo Muti as music director, which is something of a coup. Muti left La Scala in 2005 and many thought that, at 66, he wasn't ready to go back to being a full-time music director. He had turned down the NY Phil at least once, maybe twice.

I think Muti's podium manner is more than a bit overwrought, with the hair flying and sweat dripping, and it may be that he's past his creative peak. But conducting is aerobic, and it's not all that unusual for conductors to be active into their 80s or 90s. Whether I like watching him or not, I almost always enjoy listening to the music he conducts, which reflects both discipline and passion. So Chicago is probably fortunate to have him. Some conductors gain insight and maturity with age, and their work can achieve greater depth and feeling. Interesting that New York and Los Angeles are going with young wunderkinds and Chicago gets the old master.

UN shows a little sense

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on this week's meeting of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome this week, calling attention to what has become a pretty bona fide food crisis in many parts of the world. The UN has mentioned developed countries' biofuel programs (read: ethanol) as contributing to rising prices and serious shortages. It has also criticized export controls in countries, noting correctly that they are a disincentive to increased production. Maybe it's only when it really is a matter of life or death that the UN can find something sensible to say. But it did so this time.

On McCain's temper

Now that the stage is set for a general election, I thought it might be relevant, in case you missed it, to link to the WaPo story a couple of months ago that discussed John McCain's well-known problem with anger management. The incidents described don'e strike me as all that terrible, most of them. We know from McCain's his books and Matt Welch's excellent "McCain: The Myth of a Maverick," that McCain has had a temper since early childhood. He was more a screw-up than a model student at Annapolis and was constantly getting into fights well into adulthood.

The story about unloading on a poor young volunteer early in his political career for setting up a podium that emphasized McCain's relatively short stature is pretty despicable. The Post story opens with him almost coming to fisticuffs with Iowa Sen. Grassley -- but he didn't, and it was back in 1992. He's pushed and shoved a few senators, but the Post writer couldn't find evidence of him actually slugging anybody recently.

At the Register we saw an example of the famed McCain temper during an editorial board over a question asked by John Seiler that I can't even remember. He got red in the face and it sure looked as if he were fighting a strong impulse to pop somebody. Welch says McCain is most likely to blow up when he perceives a challenge to his personal integrity or honor, especially if there's more than a grain of truth in the challenge, and while I still don't remember the precise question, I have a strong impression our incident fit into that category.

I have only that smattering of first-hand knowledge so I don't know whether former NH GOP Sen. Bob Smith's comment is justified, to wit: "His temper would place this country at risk in international affairs, and the world perhaps in danger. In my mind, it should disqualify him." There hasn't been a recent reported incident, but that might even mean that if he's consciously repressing his temper he could be even more tightly wound. Or maybe at the age of 71 he's begun to grow out of adolescence. Anyway, it's worth thinking about.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Feds trying to intimidate medical marijuana providers and patients

The feds have secured convictions against the two Modesto operators of medical marijuana dispensaries who were arrested some months ago, on charges that carry "mandatory" sentences of 20 years. That distributing marijuana should carry such a sentence is simply mind-boggling. That in federal cases it is forbidden to refer to the California law or to utter the words "medicinal marijuana" is a travesty.

I think this case is largely intended to intimidate other operators of dispensaries and make the DEA thugs feel like they've had a success. The feds simply don't have the resources to prosecute all the dispensaries in the state. From what I've heard from various activists, they were pretty shrewd in those they chose to prosecute. These two guys, according to at least a few other mdical marijuana activists, operated on the edge of ethical practice, and made more profit than most dispensary operators. I have nothing against profit, but this is an area where large profits attract negative attention.

Quite frankly, I've been a little shocked at the prices most dispensaries get for the product -- up to $160 for 1/8 of an ounce. I understand that growing for therapeutic purposes is more expensive than just throwing some seeds somewhere in a national forest or in a back yard. And I know that in many cases up to half of revenues go to lawyers, because the feds have made that advisable with their actions and their threats. But dammit, they don't call it weed for nothing. There are subtleties, but it's not that hard to grow.

If the feds weren't in prosecution/intimidation mode, of course, there would be more dispensaries and more competition, and the prices would decrease significantly. Barack Obama has said when asked that he will call off the feds in states with state medical marijuana laws, although he has hardly been a profile in courage on the issue of decriminalization. (McCain has indicated he might be tougher than Bush.) He should be asked this question at any appearance where activists get a chance to pose questions so that the position is cemented more firmly in the public record and the "public mind" than I believe is the case yet.

Live-blogging at Horserace'08

I'm live-blogging tonight's election results at the Register's Horserace'08 election blog. I suspect my comments on Barack Obama's speech are unlike anything you'll see anywhere else, but I'm also looking at California results -- Prop. 98 (sadly losing so far), the McClintock-Ose race in the 4th CD, Mark Ridley Thomas vs. Bernard Parks, and some Orange County races. Also some posts from Scott Shackford out at the Desert Dispatch, whom I met at this year's Freedom School in San Antonio. A good guy who always has something incisive to say.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Split decision on Bob Barr

I'm still not sure what to think about the Libertarian Party's nomination of Bob Barr as president. I talked to a long-time (and I mean long-time) libertarian activist last week who on balance was rather dismayed. He doesn't think Barr is close to being a shure-nuff libertarian, though he might get there eventually, pointing out that while in an LP speech last week hge talked about rescinding the Patriot Act, in a media interview he talked about seeing which parts should be retained and which should be repealed, shading the issue. He also doesn't think he's fully persuaded about the immorality of the drug war, though he's come some distance on medical marijuana. He says the Ron Paul people don't much like Barr, so there's little chance of organizing/fundraising help from that corner. And he thinks Wayne Allyn Root, who tossed his support to Barr and got the vice presidential nomination, is an opportunist and the LP will be lucky if he isn't in jail before the end of the year (among other things he's an online gambling entrepreneur).

The factor that might militate most strongly against the LP getting an unusually good, even game-changing performance this year by nominating someone who already had a political "name" is that this is likely to be a close election. Even if they understand the Electoral College and the fact that in many states the race isn't all that close and a third-party vote won't defeat their second choice, voters tend to shun third parties when the election is close nationally. All too many people buy into the "your vote counts" mystique.

Anti-smoking or pro-property right?

Glen Whitman over at Agoraphilia has an interesting comment on a proposal being considered by the California legislature. The news stories talked about banning smoking in apartments to protect other tenants from second-hand smoke. It turns out the law would allow apartment owners to ban smoking in their apartments. Glen wonders whether a law was needed to do this -- and whether expansion of property rights now has to be couched in the language of prohibition to make them palatable. If so, our culture is truly degraded.

Let's get this space race started

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the landing of the Phoenix Mars vehicle. While there's excitement and coolness in this, we argue that the real excitement is the fact that Burt Rutan and Virgin Intergalactic have a viable competitor in the space tourism business. To be sure, space tourism in its first phase might be thought of as rather pedestrian: sending rich folk just to the edge of outer space for relatively short rides. But as Burt Rutan noted in a talk I saw him give a few years ago, the point is to do it, to have fun and play, and learn about potentialities as you go along. He pointed out that for the first years of the Internet becoming available to the public, the main thing it was used for was precisely playing games. Then people started seeing other possibilities and even chances to make some money, and eventually it expanded exponentially (through spontaneous order) until it became increasingly useful and valuable. Especially with competition, the main incentive for organizations not to get too bureaucratic and sclerotic, as NASA has, commercial space travel could be in for exciting times.

Iran: taking advantage

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the latest IAEA report suggesting that Iran has been playing cat-and-mouse with international nuclear inspectors. The IAEA doesn't think Iran has a military nuclear program, but it's worried that some of the things it's doing could eventually have a military application, and that there's considerable deceit going on. We argue that precisely because the possibility of Iran acquiring nukes is tangible, now is the time to begin the process of recommencing contact that could eventually lead to renewed diplomatic ties. The U.S. acts a bit like a petulant child in a schoolyard in international relations: I don't like you so I'm not going to talk to you. We forget that one reason to have diplomatic relations is to have people (including spies) in countries that could pose problems, as we did throughout the Cold War, to learn as much as possible about them. We currently know less about Iran than we did about Iraq before the invasion, and as event have shown, we didn't know much.