"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Thursday, December 30, 2010

What's Wrong With Us?

Here is a description of students at the American University in Iraq:
  • Students here come to class wide awake and cheerful. Even those students in the 8 a.m. Mathematics II class show up on time and ready to work; the same applies to the students in the later sections.
  • Students here show up for class without a bunch of electronics. Cell phones are plentiful here, but I've never seen one in class. Last spring, at my university in the United States, I spent countless weeks wrestling with my calculus students over texting in class.
  • In both their dress and demeanor, students here display a positive attitude toward learning. There’s no "slacker" mentality. Students are nicely dressed, most at a business casual level. There are no pajamas, flip-flops, or t-shirts with profane or sexually explicit messages, nor do you see a lot of skin. These kids are dressed to learn.
  • Although my students come from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds, I haven’t noticed that they split up into cliques. To some extent, this may just reflect a lack of cultural understanding on my part, but my strong sense is that students work well together across these differences.
  • Students here readily raise their hands to ask or answer questions and to contribute to class discussions. (Again, the slacker mentality is totally absent.)
  • Students here have a great deal of respect for their teachers. There’s no anti-intellectual vibe, no iconoclastic edge to their demeanor. Instead, students here display a deep respect for learning and accomplishment.
  • Finally, and most importantly, the students here are willing to take risks. They readily volunteer answers to complicated questions that come up in class, and they are not afraid to openly explore unfamiliar ideas and concepts, asking numerous questions along the way.
I doubt there is any classroom at any American university or college where this description would be accurate.   What's wrong with us?   One answer springs to mind.... we have far too many children who are going to college, not to learn, but because they are supposed to go to college as a matter of social class structure.   They know it's a cynical game in which their families are exchanging thousands of dollars (often borrowed) for a credential.   It's not surprising that students in America behave cynically about learning under those circumstances.   Most of them want to be somewhere else, doing something else, and ought to be somewhere else, doing something else. 

Girl Thursday - Elizabeth Moss

My favorite character on Mad Men is Peggy Olson, the mousy young girl who is working her way up at the advertising agency as a copywriter based on nothing more than her smarts.   It's a great role, and Elizabeth Moss is great in it.   Moss has to be "dolled down" to play the part, as you can see:

Smile of the Day

We saw the movie The Fighter yesterday.   Probably the best movie about boxing I've seen, and the performance of Christian Bale (below) as the crack-addicted brother-trainer of the fighter Mickey Ward is spectacular.  If he doesn't win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, it's a crime.  

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Girl Wednesday - Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep has been around so long that you forget how stunningly beautiful she was when she first started out as an actress.   Katherine Hepburn had a similar career arc... her transcendence as an older actress obscured what a hot ticket she had been as a younger woman.  

I first saw Streep in The Deerhunter, a movie that knocked me out when I first saw it, although one that I suspect I wouldn't like too much now.   She was almost perfect as a very sweet, not so bright girl from small-town, working class Pennsylvania, who begins the movie in love with Chris Walken's character, and ends in love with a very damaged Robert DeNiro after he returns from Vietnam. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Visual Display of Quantitative Information

A partner of mine used to have in his office a copy of the book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.   We often have as an issue in our cases how to explain to a jury in simple terms a complicated quantitative analysis (my work has often involved the finances of large public and union pension plans).    It's a difficult problem usually, and I admire people who find creative ways to present information.   Here, for instance, is a great graph of Napoleon's campaign to Moscow and his retreat from Russia, and the effect it had on the strength of his army.... we saw it a couple of days ago in an exhibit at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.   The dwindling beige and then black line represents the size of Napoleon's army as it disintegrates.  

Anyway, here is a graph from the Heritage Foundation that says pretty much all you need to know about how awful our current tax system is:

It is immoral to extort at the point of a gun (the implicit threat of punishment if you don't pay your income taxes) that much from such a small group, while the majority pays little if any federal income taxes.  

Colonel Roosevelt

I just got as a Christmas present from my mother-in-law Edmund Morris' Colonel Roosevelt.  It's the third volume of what has been a great biography of Theodore Roosevelt, who must rank in the small pantheon of truly great Presidents.   My own ranking would be:

1.   Abraham Lincoln
2.   George Washington
3.    Franklin Delano Roosevelt
4.    Ronald Reagan
5.    Thomas Jefferson
6.    Theodore Roosevelt
7.    Dwight Eisenhower
8.    John Adams
9.    Ulysses S. Grant
10.   George W. Bush

This is my top 10, but I think there's a big drop off after #3, and another big drop off after #6.   Grant is the one in the top 10 whom I can least defend as President, but being the winning general in the Civil War -- the greatest test of our country's character in its history -- gets him on my list.   As for GWB, I am just getting out ahead of the historians, who I believe will come around to view him as a great leader in the Global War on Terrorism.  

Morris' book is great so far.... the Prologue about Roosevelt's safari to Africa in the year after he left the Presidency is fascinating.   On the same topic, a couple of years ago I read a really neat book about Roosevelt's exploration of an unknown tributary of the Amazon in 1913, after he lost his bid to win the Presidency as a third-party candidate, Candace Millard's The River of Doubt. 


Robert Samuelson Speaks Truth to Power

The 1960s generation and the radicals that followed them in academia coined the phrase "speaking truth to power," which supposedly meant speaking hard truths that no one wanted to hear, but usually ended up meaning mouthing leftist cliches.   But Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post yesterday did some actual truth telling to the most powerful constituency in American politics, the baby-boomer generation:
[N]either political party seems interested in reducing benefits for baby boomers. Doing so, it's argued, would be "unfair" to people who had planned retirements based on existing programs. Well, yes, it would be unfair. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a worse time for cuts. Unemployment is horrendous; eroding home values and retirement accounts have depleted the elderly's wealth. Only 19 percent of present retirees are "very confident" of having enough money to live "comfortably," down from 41 percent in 2007, reports the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

But not making cuts would also be unfair to younger generations and the nation's future. We have a fairness dilemma: Having avoided these problems for decades, we must now be unfair to someone. To admit this is to demolish the moral case for leaving baby boomers alone. Baby boomers - I'm on the leading edge - and their promised benefits are the problem. If they're off-limits, the problem is being evaded.
As they say, read the whole thing.   There really is no alternative.   We have been on a drunken spending spree.   We are going to need to go cold turkey, and the cure starts with entitlements.   The path ahead will be fraught with cold sweats, delirium tremens, nausea, headaches, etc.   We can only hope that we haven't damaged our vital organs (our economy, our national security, the American national character) beyond repair.  

Sorry for the long extended metaphor, but American really is the sick man of the world right now. 

Birthdays Today

It is Earl "Fatha" Hines' birthday today.  Born in 1903, Hines was one of the great jazz pianists, playing with Louis Armstrong on his original "Hot Fives" releases in the 1920s, and later becoming one of the precursors (in style) to the Bebop revolution of the late 1940s and 1950s.   Here are Hines (and Armstrong) playing "Weather Bird," a famous jazz duet:

It's also Denzel Washington's 56th birthday.  Hard to imagine he's that old, but then it's hard to imagine I'm as old as I am too.     One of my favorite actors, it's weird that I can't really say he's ever been in a truly good movie.   When I go down the list of his movies, there are a lot like this, Remember the Titans, which are flawed or even bad movies that he is the best thing in.

Girl Tuesday - Joan Fontaine

My son, whose interest in Bruce Springsteen borders on the obsessive, asked me this week who Joan Fontaine was.  The reference was to this lyrice from the early Springsteen song, "Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street":
Hey bus driver keep the change, bless your children, give them names,
Don’t trust men who walk with canes,
drink this and you’ll grow wings on your feet
Broadway Mary, Joan Fontaine, advertiser on a downtown train
Christmas crier bustin’ cane, He’s in love again.
Where dock worker’s dreams mix with panther’s schemes to someday own the rodeo
Tainted women in Vistavision perform for out-of-state kids at the late show.
Not sure what any of that means.   Early Bruce tended to want to be Bob Dylan, and he wrote a lot of words trying to prove that he had the verbal facility to do it.   Later, he went almost the other direction, trying to write Raymond Carver stories as songs, with a kind of borrowed working class diction that smacks a little too much of what the French call nostalgie de la boue, or "nostalgia for the mud."   As my son says (while still loving Bruce), "who are you kidding, you've been a rock star since you were 20 years old, you never 'worked on the highway'!"  

Anyway, Joan Fontaine was one of the loveliest movie stars of the early 1940s.   Here she is, in her best role in Rebecca:

Monday, December 27, 2010

Girl Monday - Amber Kuo

The best romantic comedy we saw this year, and maybe the best I've seen in the last decade or so, was the Taiwanese movie, Au Revoir Taipei, starring Amber Kuo.   A sweet, hilarious movie with a great, jazzy soundtrack.  

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Birthdays Today

Mao Zedong was born today in 1893.  One of the true monsters of the 20th Century, Mao led China's communists through World War II, in its Revolution in the late 1940s, and in the decades following.   According to the authoritative “Black Book of Communism,” an estimated 65 million Chinese died as a result of Mao’s repeated, merciless attempts to create a new “socialist” China.   The Heritage Foundation has a good article detailing the slaughter here

Simply put, any 1960s college student (or current college student who wishes she had lived in the 1960s.... you know who you are) who had a Mao poster on their wall like the one below or bought a copy of Mao's Little Red Book was complicit in mass murder that dwarfed the Nazi regimes murder of 6 million Jews.   Will any of them feel guilty?   Not likely.   The ability of American leftists to avoid their own responsibility for communism's depravity knows no bounds.   See no evil, hear no evil, feel no evil.  

Girl of the Day - NBA Cheerleaders

I generally don't like cheerleaders at professional games... a lot of them look and dance too much like strippers.   But the Christmas outfits at yesterday's OKC Thunder game were pretty cute, although that may not be quite the right word.  

Smile of the Day

The Heat rolled over the Lakers in LA in the Christmas Day game, 96-80.  Doesn't mean much... the Lakers and Kobe will undoubtedly turn things around when the playoffs come.   But it does show that the Heat, Lebron, Dwayne Wade (below) and Chris Bosh have really gotten it turned around.   I watched a good deal of the game, and Bosh is better than I thought, Wade is Wade, but James.... wow.    He's so big and so skilled.... he just drives his man, draws a double and jumps over them to make a pass to wide open shooters.   Amazing and maybe indefensible.  

In other words, the NBA is really really interesting this year.  

Friday, December 24, 2010

To Absent Friends

My son loves Bruce Springsteen, so much so that he walks around singing Springsteen songs under his breath at school.   A Springsteen song he's grown to love recently is "Darlington County" from Born in the U.S.A.   There's a line from that song about two drifters who come down from NYC to the South looking for work, and they are talking to girls, and they brag that "Our Pas each own one of the World Trade Centers."   Back then (in 1984), no one could imagine that they would ever not be there standing at the foot of Manhattan.  

One of my favorite nights ever was in the restaurant on top of the WTC called "Windows on the World."   One of my best college friends' dads was the Rector of Trinity Parish, and, fair to say, of "independent means."   Anyway, they took me -- a freshman rube who had lucked into going to Princeton -- to the wine cellar of the restaurant, which was called "Cellar in the Sky," where we had a seven-course meal with a different wine for each course.   (The drinking age then was 18, which ironically made 18 year olds more civilized, because they could drink out in public with adults.)   A great night. 

Ever since then, I've loved Manhattan.   I lived there after college for a couple of years, and I've been back there on my honeymoon and many times on business.   I had a long jury trial there a few years ago.   Many, many great memories of New York, and looming over a lot of them were the World Trade Center towers.  

Hanging in my house are two pictures of Manhattan, one taken from the Chrysler Building, one from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge.  In the background of each are the WTC towers.

Can you love buildings?  Maybe not.  But you can love the memories you associate with a place, and in that sense I loved the World Trade Center towers.   If I were the mayor of New York, we would already be building a tower on that site that is bigger and better, and we would call it the America Towers.   If I were the President of the United States, I would go to the site and make a speech and I would tell the world that if anyone tries to knock down that tower a 20-megaton bomb will detonate over Mecca within 24 hours.  

The World Trade Center towers were completed forty years ago today.   RIP.  

Girl of the Day - Holy Mary, Mother of God

On Christmas Eve, a Christian's thoughts ought to turn to the Mother of God, Mary:

Birthdays Today (and Yesterday)

We were traveling yesterday in the family people mover, bringing die Kinder to die Grossmutter.   So I missed blogging.  

I talked to someone at work whose child was born on Christmas Eve -- I told him I always thought that would be cool, so you could get double presents!   Other folks born on December 24th include:  Ignatius of Loyola, born in 1491, who founded the order of Jesuit priests.  

Our family has a special fondness for Jesuits.... my wife attended Creighton and Marquette, and I went to Marquette law school.   More importantly, my wife's uncle was a Jesuit priest who was President of Marquette from the early 1960s through the late 1980s, Father John P. Raynor, S.J.   A great and good man... I wish he were still around to talk to.   Occasionally I could use some advice.  

Matthew Arnold, the English poet and critic, was born in 1822.   Arnold's one great poem for my money was "Dover Beach," which has some of the most beautiful lines in the language:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
I also missed yesterday's birthday of the great composer, Giacomo Puccini, born in 1853.   Here's Puccini's great aria from Turandot, "Nessum Dorma," probably my favorite "song" from the world of opera:

Tomorrow, of course.... the biggest and best birthday of all.   Merry Christmas to everyone!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Girlies and Smiles of the Day Combo Post

Lots going on today in the last day before Christmas vacation, so I just couldn't get to the blog.   Here's my smiling girlies for today in their Irish dance finery and wigs.   Man-o-man, I must get out and purchase the shotgun now, for later, when the teenage boys start coming around. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Falsifiability and Global Warming

Ann Althouse makes a great point today with regard to a UK Guardian story entitled, "That snow outside is what global warming looks like," which has as its tendentious point that all that cold and snow in Britain this winter doesn't disprove global warming.   Althouse says simply (and devastatingly) that "when everything is evidence of the thing you want to believe, it might be time to stop pretending you're all about science."  

Althouse doesn't say it precisely, but what she's talking about is actually a fundamental premise in the philosophy of science (via Karl Popper), namely, that scientific fact has to be "falsifiable," i.e., there has to be some evidence that, if true, would make the theory false.   If all evidence can be incorporated in the theory -- much like everything can be described as "God's will," or by the phrase "God works in mysterious ways," or "God can do anything" -- then you are not talking about science, but religion.   If warmth is evidence of global warming, and cold is evidence of global warming -- or, in England, if no snow = global warming and snow = global warming -then global warming is not science anymore, it's a faith system.   And, like any faith system, its arguments of late have often boiled down to demanding that heretics be silenced.  

BTW, it's snowing here in Milwaukee.   Here's a picture out my office window.... you can't quite see Lake Michigan:

Birthdays Today

Thomas Becket was born today in 1117.  Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury until his murder in 1170; assassinated by followers of Henry II, Becket was almost immediately canonized.   The struggles between the Catholic Church and the King of England during the Middle Ages were almost entirely political, in my estimation, rather than doctrinal -- Becket and Henry II were essentially rival kings.  

Also born today, in 1804, was the 19th century Conservative prime minister of England, Benjamin Disraeli, the only Jewish man ever to be prime minister.   (Disraeli was born into a Jewish family, but was baptised as a Christian and practiced as an Anglican his whole life.)    Disraeli's main rival at the time was Gladstone, the Liberal leader.   Disraeli was almost a popular novelist during his period, but his works have not worn well, and are not read much today.  

Finally, today is Jane Fonda's 73rd birthday.   An execrable person politically, "Hanoi Jane" was the star of one of my favorite movies in the mid-1960s when I was a small kid first liking movies, the comic western, Cat Ballou.  For some reason, this picture from the movie captures how I feel about her -- an incredibly cute girl who actually probably needed to be strung up.

Girl Tuesday - Lillian Gish

Silent film star of the 1920s, Lillian Gish, was D.W. Griffith's leading lady in the early classics Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.   Amazingly, she lived to be 100, and had her last role in the 1987 movie, The Whales of August, at age 94.  

Smile of the Day

Da Bears won the NFC North last night by defeating the Vikings soundly outside at the University of Minnesota.   I did not expect the Bears to be this good this year, and it's a tribute to the Bears coach, Lovie Smith, who has now won 3 division championships in 6 years. 

BTW, Brett Favre was knocked out in the second quarter... it's probably his last game in the NFL.   With Favre you never know, though. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Stress Test

Very light blogging today.... this morning I had a cardiac stress test.   Apparently I secretly have the cardiovacular system of a race horse, because I went about five minutes past what average people do and wasn't breathing heavily.   Finally I just got bored and got off.  

It's interesting to contemplate how health care has changed.   We kvetch about the cost of health insurance and the cost of health care, but we demand that the medical profession develop newer and better processes for detecting earlier and earlier the least problem with our bodies.   Fifty years ago a man like me, post-50, would be smoking, drinking a lot more, eating a lot more read meat and eggs and bacon, and would have no way of detecting that his arteries were steadily clogging (or that his colon was developing polyps).  You wonder if men grew up earlier and became more responsible earlier because there just wasn't that much time to do anything else.  You'd see a lot fewer 40 year old men acting like college students if they thought that they might only live to 60.   Now, we all think we have plenty of time to spare.   And so we waste so much of it.  

Just some night thoughts.    More tomorrow. 

Girl Monday - Simone Signoret

Simone Signoret won the Best Actress Oscar in 1959, the year I was born, for Room at the Top.  

Smile of the Day

Michael Vick, after bringing the Eagles back from a 31-10 fourth quarter deficit to the Giants at the New Meadowlands to a 38-31 last second win, is having an amazing year.   Only Tom Brady's sustained excellence for the Patriots will keep Vick from winning the MVP for the NFL, and he may win it anyway.   I didn't like what Vick did -- dog-fighting is a barbaric thing -- but he paid a heavy price with two years in jail and giving up a huge contract (and his reputation), and he now appears to have reformed his life sincerely.  

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Going to Mars, or What Are Humans For?

Also via Instapundit, this article about America's shrinking expectations that struck a chord with me:
There was a time – was it just a generation ago? – when Americans were legendary for doing vast, seemingly superhuman, projects:  the Interstate Highway System, the Apollo Missions, Hoover Dam, the Manhattan Project, the Normandy invasion, the Empire State Building, Social Security. 
What happened?  Today we look at these achievements, much as Dark Age peasants looked on the mighty works of the Roman Era, feeling like some golden age has passed when giants walked the Earth. 
It has always bothered me that, when I was a kid, I watched men walk on the moon.   But it's been nearly 40 years since we went there, and we haven't tried to go to Mars, which would have been the next logical step (to me anyway).  Instead, we have welfare and social security and Medicare and Medicaid.   We've spent our Mars fund on pills for grandpa.  

The question boils down to this:  what are human beings for?   Are we here simply to survive, to distribute wealth so that everyone has a modicum of comfort from womb to tomb, wrapped in the protective cocoon of the welfare state?  Or are we here to do great things?   This will sound mean, but no one remembers the 95 IQ man who worked in the fields in 15th century Italy, but they remember Leonardo da Vinci.   The former deserves dignity as a Christian soul, but that doesn't mean we should put limits on what the latter can do.   

An America worth living in or worth dying for is an America that tries to do great things.    

Here's how I would start.   First, we have to fix our long-term economy.   There are three interrelated problems:  tax rates, government borrowing, and entitlements.    We need to lower marginal tax rates and eliminate capital gains taxes to make America a great place to invest and work.   We need to severely cut government spending to balance our budget, and we need to do it today, not in five years.   We need to cap Medicare at a percentage of GDP, and we need to means test Social Security, and we need to do those things very soon.   We need to pass a Constitutional amendment permitting the federal government to cut public employee pensions, even after they've been "earned."  

Second, we need to fix our education system.   No one should go to college if they cannot become proficient in some useful, technical field - engineering, economics, mathematics, sciences.  No one should go to college if they cannot learn, well enough to speak and read fluently, a foreign language.  No one need major in these fields, but they need to be able to do a job in these fields once they get out.   Colleges need to have core curricula that will actually prepare students for real jobs in a globalized, technological world.   If colleges aren't doing this, they are committing fraud, and need to be investigated for racketeering.

Third, we need to solve our energy needs.   Here's where doing big things comes in.   We need to commit ourselves to having 100% of our electricity needs in 2050 being provided by nuclear power.  That means we need to commit ourselves to building lots and lots of nuclear power plants in every state.   We will need to fund the basic research we need in order to make them safe and efficient, but they are safe enough now to start.  (We should have been doing this for the past 30 years, and would have if the enviro-weenies hadn't whined about Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

Fourth, we need to go to Mars.   We need to start planning to go to Mars now, and we need to set ourselves a goal of going to Mars by 2025.   Or else what are human beings for?  

The Higher Education Bubble

Via Instapundit, my favorite blog aggregator, created by Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds.   This is a story Reynolds has been on for some time, and one that I've thought about a good deal too, particularly since I've both taught at the college level and also have three children for whom I'm saving for college (although not enough).   Reynolds links to this Forbes article, which attempts to consider the average college education as an investment, and attempts to calculate its "price/earnings" ratio.   The usual concept of a good price-earnings ratio for a blue chip stock is something around 15... that is, you would pay $15 for a stock that earned $1 a year.   The author concludes that the P/E ratio of a college education is something like 100... in other words, it's a highly, highly speculative investment, and one that most parents of most college-age kids wouldn't make, if it were viewed as an investment.   It's also, as he points out, illiquid... you can't sell your diploma if it turns out that it's a bad investment.  

Here's a key point that a lot of people don't get:
On average it takes six years to finish college nowadays. That's because students increasingly are dropping classes late in the term in order to avoid failing grades--dropping out of a class does not mean they avoid tuition costs on the class. So, hard cost for a college degree is roughly $150,000 for a private school and a little less than $50,000 for public (depending on residency discounts).

But that's not the only cost: Students are foregoing six years of full-time income for their six years of full-time education. Let's say an average of $10 per hour (something like $8/hour right out of high school, trending toward $12/hour after six years' work), which comes out to $20,000 dollars per year, which is $120,000 over six years.
We have too many kids in college, studying subjects that aren't useful, and getting out in debt, only to work at Kinko's.   We have too big a college industry, preying on these families.   It's a racket.   But it's a racket that, I think, parents are starting to wake up about.   My sons and daughters are, at least at this stage, academically gifted.   They are the kinds of kids who could excel in college, and should go, because they can do college level work in serious subjects.   But if I had a son who wasn't academically gifted, I would be seriously thinking about steering him into being an electrician or a carpenter or a plumber.   Think about it:  your son gets out of high school, apprentices for 4-6 years, and at the end of it he has some of his own money in the bank, he has a marketable skill, he has work habits, and he's been hanging around with adults rather than college-age drunkards.    When he turns 22 or 24 you hand him a check for $100,000, or whatever his college would have cost, and you say to him, take half of this and start a small business, and take the other half and buy yourself a house.   Is he going to be better off in that scenario, or is he better off getting out of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a degree in sociology and a hangover?   

Birthday Girl Sunday - Alyssa Milano

Alyssa Milano was the kid on the TV show "Who's the Boss" back in the early 1980s with Tony Danza.   Pre-cable, it was a middling hit, but its audience was significantly bigger in absolute terms than, say, "Seinfeld" a few years later.   Milano's continuing presence in pop culture is probably attributable to the fact that her show was pre-cable.   Back then, there was a more homogeneous set of pop culture references, because we all watched the same shows, even if they weren't that good.   Hard to believe she's having her 38th birthday today.   Of course, "Little Ricky" from "I Love Lucy" is probably going on 60 or so.  

Milano went on to star in the cable show "Charmed," of which I have never watched one minute.   But she also markets baseball-related clothing for women, which is pretty cool -- apparently she's a big fan.  

Birthday Smile of the Day

It's also Reggie White's birthday today, the great (and late) NFL defensive lineman, who took Brett Favre to his only Super Bowl in 1996 with the Packers.   White, an ordained minister, was, by all accounts, a natural leader -- like a nicer Ray Lewis -- whom his teammates loved and feared.   Probably the most ferocious defensive end ever, he could toss a 300 pound NFL tackle aside with one arm -- amazing.   White would have been 49 today, but died in 2004 of cardiac arrhthmia.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Birthdays Today

Good birthdays today... first, the artist Paul Klee was born in 1879.   The Swiss Klee was a leading figure and theorist of modern abstract painting who studied and lived in Germany until forced to flee the Nazis in 1933.   I've never liked Klee as much as his close friend, Kandinsky, but some of his paintings are quite beautiful:

Also born today, in 1886, was the greatest Detroit Tiger of them all, Ty Cobb.   Cobb, whose lifetime batting average of .367 is the best in baseball history, was also according to legend the most hated man in baseball when he played, due to his "take no prisoners" style of baserunning and his generally nasty personality.    That view of Cobb has come down through history, and perhaps even grew, as his supposedly Southern racist views, perhaps typical in the early decades of the 20th century, became anathema after the Civil Rights movement.   Was Cobb a racist?   Well, after baseball, he became very successful in business, ending up with an estate of some $12 million by the early 1960s, a tidy sum.   He used some of this to endow scholarships for needy Georgia students to go to college, regardless of race.   He used other money build a hospital in Roylston, Georgia, his hometown, which served its community regardless of race.   In some ways, probably yes.   In other ways, probably no.   Historical figures shouldn't be judged by modern standards, but against the standards of their own times and places, just like batting averages need to be judged against batters of a particular era.   Here's an article that puts this complicated person in perspective.    

Also born today, in 1916, was Betty Grable.  I knew about her status as the number one pinup girl of World War II -- the picture below is among the most famous pictures ever -- but I didn't know she was born in St. Louis, nor that, for a period of about ten years from the early 1940s to the early 1950s she was the top female star in Hollywood for eight out of ten years.   Amazing, since, looking down the list of her movies --Down Argentine Way, Moon Over Miami, Springtime in the Rockies, Coney Island, Sweet Rosie O'Grady, Pin Up Girl, Diamond Horseshoe, The Dolly Sisters, Mother Wore Tights,  That Lady in Ermine, When My Baby Smiles at Me, Wabash Avenue, My Blue Heaven, Meet Me After the Show, How to Marry a Millionaire, Three for the Show -- not one of them has lasted as a "classic."  I am a movie guy, and I have never seen a single Betty Grable movie.  But, as they say, facts is facts.  

Girl Saturday - Catherine Deneuve

Another icon of the 1960s is our Girl of the Day.   Back when it seemed there was always a French actress celebrated as an international sex symbol, Catherine Deneuve was perhaps the most beautiful French actress, and probably the best in terms of actual acting.   In retrospect, I imagine that the fact that men of that era included a lot of ETO vets who had been through France in 1944 and 1945 might explain why a Bardot or a Deneuve became such a sensation.  On the other hand, other things might explain it, such as, well, you know...

Smile of the Day

Lebron James and the Miami Heat have won 11 straight.   Lebron took a lot of grief for the not very hard to understand decision over the summer that he'd rather play basketball with (a) great players (Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh); (b) in Miami (warm) rather than Cleveland (cold); where there's (c) a lot hotter women -- remember, he's a single, 25 year-old high testosterone young man; (d) in a city that's an international capital and tourist destination -- remember, he wants to be an international marketing icon; and (e) in Florida, a state where there's no state income tax.  Not really a hard decision.   So hate him if you want.   Among the things that life has taught me is that having a lot of talent and a lot of money often will give you the last laugh. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Birthdays Today

It's hard to do justice to just how lame the birthdays today are.   The only one of even marginal interest to me -- and none to most other people -- is Mike Mills, the bassist for R.E.M. It's hard to believe he's 52, a year older than I am; I'll bet it's hard for him to believe too.

   So, having nothing interesting to say, I'll just let R.E.M. hit it:

Girl Friday - Catherine Spaak

Back when I was a graduate student, one of my illicit pleasures (not that illicit, actually pretty innocent) was to go to the library, back in the stacks, and read old Life magazines.   I loved the pictures and even the ads -- they gave me a sense of what it was like to live in that particular moment with that particular mix of pop culture, products, politics, people, etc.   Anyway, here's a young actress named Catherine Spaak who went on to... well, as far as I can tell, to not much of anything.  But there she is in 1966 on the cover of Life.   She was 20 then (I was 7), so she's nearing 65 now.  How fleeting is fame; how short life; gather ye rosebuds, etc.

Smile of the Day - And the Schadenfreude Keeps Coming

Senate Democrats led by Harry Reid yesterday retreated from their attempt to pass an earmark-laden $1.1 trillion spending bill for next year.   This is a big win for Republicans, but mostly a big win for the Tea Party wing of the GOP.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Birthdays Today

My Girls of the Day were not accidental.... today is the birthday of Jane Austen, born in 1775.  

Austen's works are among the few novels that I pick up every few years to reread.  (Although, come to think of it, I haven't reread Emma or Pride and Prejudice or Mansfield Park or Sense and Sensibility for awhile... better get that on my list!)  So simple -- she is famous for noting that the material for a novel could be found in a small town in the English countryside and 3 or 4 families -- Austen's novels about young women and their paths to marriage are among the more profound statements of Christian morality I've read.  

A moment in Emma captures this quality beautifully:  the highly intelligent, beautiful and rich Emma Woodhouse ridicules Miss Bates, a kindhearted spinster, at a picnic while trying to flirt with the ne-er-do-well, Frank Churchill.   For making a joke to impress Churchill at another's expense, Emma is reprimanded by Mr. Knightley, a true gentleman (whom she will ultimately wed).   The point is simple, yet central to Christianity -- we do not use other people for our own purposes, we do not casually cause harm or hurt feelings.   If we are strong, we protect the weak, we do not exploit them.   A great, great novelist, up there with Tolstoy and George Eliot in my Top 3.


My old man loved jazz, and particularly small-group, traditional jazz.   One of his favorites was a San Francisco-based trombonist named Turk Murphy, who was born today in 1915.   I hope Dad is at Earthquake McGoon's in heaven, listening to Turk right now.   Here's Turk:

Girl(s) Thursday - Jennifer Ehle v. Keira Knightley

Being a sucker for Jane Austen, I will watch any production of Pride and Prejudice that comes along.  The two most recent are the BBC version from 15 or so years ago, and the 2005 movie version.   The two female stars present very different versions of Elizabeth Bennet, but both are charming, Jennifer Ehle in a more zaftig way, Keira Knightley in a more modern "modelish" way.   I probably preferred the Ehle version, but that may be because Colin Firth was better as Mr. Darcy than Matthew Macfadyen

Smile of the Day

The economist Arthur Laffer is our smile of the day, appropriately so, given the debate over tax rates.   Laffer is the fellow who, in the 1970s, described what ought to have been a trivial notion, because it's so obviously true -- if the tax rate is 0%, the government collects $0 in revenue, but if the tax rate is 100%, the government also collects $0 in revenue, because the incentives to earn income (at least on the books income) will disappear.   Somewhere in between there must as a matter of mathematical certainty be a point where government revenue is maximized, and the path to that point from either direction is inevitably a curve. 

The upshot, of course, is that there are tax rates that are too high, that do not maximize government revenue because they inhibit economic activity; and there are tax rates that are too low (at least from the government's perspective), because they don't produce enough revenue.   The question that every politician ought to be made to answer before any tax increase is... "Do you have data that suggests that this tax increase will actually increase government revenue?   I.e., do you know where you are on the Laffer Curve?"

Laffer has been vilified by the Left for thirty years, not because he was wrong, but because he was so obviously right.

P.S.  The one caveat I'd have when speaking about the Laffer Curve is simply that, just because there is a rate at which government revenue is maximized, doesn't mean that rate is the appropriate rate.   We don't want to maximize government revenue.   We want to maximize the happiness and prosperity of individual Americans.   The appropriate tax rate is the one which simultaneously allows us to provide essential government services (which ought to be few) and allows the most freedom to individuals possible.  

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Birthdays Today

When I select my "Birthdays Today" birthdays, I generally select people I have a pre-existing interest in, people about whom I feel I can say something at least marginally interesting.  Today there are no such people -- what's up with December 15th? -- so I thought I'd just select someone whom I know basically nothing about and see what I can find.  

Anyway, it's J. Paul Getty's birthday today.   Born in 1892, Getty's name was always synonymous for me with vast wealth.   When I was little -- and I think a lot of people are this way even as adults (I'm looking at you, liberals) -- I thought that there were just "rich people," who were born that way.  I had no idea what anyone had to do to get there, just as I had little idea what my own father and mother did in order to get food on the table and keep a roof over our heads.   I think when people talk about "taxing the rich," they invariably do it without acknowledging that those "rich" oftentimes took enormous risks and worked extraordinarily hard and made significant innovations that improve people's lives.  

So it occurs to me... how exactly did Getty become Getty?

Getty's father was in the oil business, but Getty made his first million by age 24 running his own oil company in Tulsa.   He inherited $500,000 from his father in 1930 -- a huge sum then, but not enough to make him a billionaire by any stretch of the imagination -- and built his own oil business through shrewd mergers throughout the Depression.   Here is the interesting part, to me anyway:  in 1949,Getty agreed to pay $9.5 million in cash and $1 million a year for a 60-year concession to a tract of barren land near the border of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.  No oil had ever been discovered there, and none appeared until four years and $30 million had been spent.  From 1953 onward, Getty's gamble produced 16,000,000 barrels (2,500,000 m3) a year, which contributed greatly to the fortune which made him one of the richest people in the world.   Along the way, Getty learned to speak Arabic.

In other words, Getty had some help getting started from his father, but made his vast fortune by risking his fortune on a gamble, committing himself to roughly $100 million in expense (the $9.5 million plus $1 million a year for 60 years plus $30 million in exploration costs) before he saw a dime in return, and doing so in a volatile part of the world in an alien culture.   How many people would take that risk?  How many people have that kind of courage, particularly when they had already inherited or earned enough to be "comfortable"?   Most of us impose our own "glass ceilings" in life by settling for comfort.  Only a few won't settle, and push on to create something big.  

Apropos of this thought, here is Bernard Goldberg in his column yesterday:
Did you know that the top one percent of American wage earners (adjusted gross income) pay about 38 percent of all our federal personal taxes (according to the National Taxpayer Union)? The top one percent, by the way, account for 23.5 percent of all income — a substantial amount, yes, but considerably less than 38 percent. Or that the top five percent pay just under 60 percent?  Or that the top ten percent pay about 70 percent of all the personal income taxes collected in this great land of ours?
These "fat-cats" are the ones who do the heavy lifting in this country. They're the ones whose federal tax dollars pick up a big chunk of the tab for all sorts of noble things, such as: food for folks who don't have enough to eat … medicine and doctors for people with little money … financial aid to help other people's kids go to college … milk and diapers for poor babies whose 15 year-old mothers and deadbeat fathers are too irresponsible to take care of their own kids … a safety net for old folks who are retired on fixed incomes … and on and on.....
By the way, the bottom 50 percent of tax filers pay a paltry 2.7 percent of our federal income taxes. How many poor people do you think their tax dollars are taking care of? If you ask me, they're the ones not paying their fair share. Every time they pass a "rich" person on the street, they ought to say, "Thank you for everything you do me and for this country."
For those of you not already making plans to hang me in effigy — or for real — let me simply say this: The richest Americans may not "need" a break on their taxes, but they sure don't need being vilified, either. They need our gratitude. So let's get busy on that shiny monument in our nation's capital. And let's get some unemployed people out there building it. It's the least they can do for those nice rich people who have been keeping them afloat.
Getty was also  an avid art collector; his collection formed the basis of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, pictured below.  He left over $661 million of his estate to the museum... it's is the world's wealthiest art institute.   (I assume this is private art institutions, thinking that the Louvre or some other state-run museum must be wealthier, but who knows?)

Girl Wednesday - Christie Brinkley

At a certain moment in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I was in college, Christie Brinkley was it for a wide swath of American boys.

Smile of the Day - Omnibus Spending Bill Version

The Senate Democrats have come forware with a $1.1 trillion -- I almost wrote "billion".... shows you how far gone we are -- omnibus budget bill.   Eek!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Bush on Books

Hugh Hewitt has a neat inteview up with George W. Bush about his memoir, Decision Points.   The takeaway for me is that Bush is a very nice man, a real Christian, and highly intelligent in an entirely unpretentious way.   He doesn't have anything to prove.  

One thing the interview does prove is that Bush is a big reader, and always was, putting the lie to the habitual liberal canard about "dumb" Republicans.   (Stevenson was smarter than Eisenhower, Carter was smarter than Reagan, Gore and Kerry were so much smarter than poor George W. Bush.... the whole trope is so tired, and yet they constantly drag it out.)  

The Tax Deal Slides Off the Rails

As originally structured, the deal between GOP leaders in Congress and President Obama to extend the Bush tax cuts for two years to avoid raising taxes as of January 1st was a decent deal, perhaps the best the GOP could expect given that Democrats will still control the Senate and the Presidency next year.   The deal was essentially:  Obama agrees not to raise taxes and the GOP would agree to extend unemployment benefits for 13 more months and to allow at least some tax on large estates at death.   OK, not perfect, and maybe we should have stuck by our guns, but perfect is the enemy of the good in politics.   When it was first announced, I was a supporter.  

Now, however, it sure looks like this thing is becoming something that the GOP should back away from.   Here's John Fund in today's Wall Street Journal:
Since House Democrats rejected the tax compromise that President Obama and GOP leaders negotiated last week, there has been a mad scramble to renegotiate the deal. Liberals are seeking an increase in the death tax rate, and partisans on both sides of the aisle are festooning the bill with "Christmas tree" provisions that look suspiciously like discredited earmarks.

This bill will only survive if, like ObamaCare, it is rushed through quickly enough that its defects don't become apparent. The deal already includes nearly $5 billion in subsidies for corn-based ethanol; grants for wind and solar power; commuter tax breaks; tax preferences for NASCAR operators; and subsidies for Virgin Islands rum.
Eek!   Hugh Hewitt is correct in his recent column, when he talks about the stakes:

Boehner can choose this week to reaffirm what he and the GOP leadership have said over and over again for the past two years: We cannot stay on this path. The new speaker can, with the country's attention fixed on him, use that moment to warn the country that the fiscal cliff is real and that we are at its edge, perilously close to taking a turn marked Greece and Ireland.
This deal has to be stopped, and now. 

Birthdays Today

General James Doolittle was born today in 1896.   Doolittle's raid in April 1942, in which carrier-based B-17s bombed Tokyo in retaliation for Pearl Harbor did little damage, but did much to bolster American morale at a low point of the war. 

Also born today, in 1935, was the actress Lee Remick, one of my favorites.  Possibly the saddest movie I've ever seen is the movie Days of Wine and Roses, where she plays Jack Lemmon's beautiful young wife who slides inexorably into alcoholism.   Here's a short clip:

Girl Tuesday - Julia Stiles

Julia Stiles was pretty good in this year's Dexter story line as "Lumen," a survivor of a sick group of serial killers who becomes romantically involved with Dexter as he hunts down her tormenters.   Pretty good, I say, because I don't think this season came close to matching last season's "Trinity" killer story with John Lithgow.   But bad Dexter is better than no Dexter at all. 

Smile of the Day

Ken Cuchinelli, the Virginia Attorney General who filed the suit that led to yesterday's decision in the Virginia federal district court that the "individual mandate" part of Obamacare is unconstitutional.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tim Pawlenty on Government Unions

Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota writes in today's Wall Street Journal about what is, to my mind, the key problem in America today -- the power of government employee unions.  It's an important article, and Pawlenty could be the most serious (and, sneakily, the most electable) Republican likely to run for President in 2012.   Here's the money quote:
Federal employees receive an average of $123,049 annually in pay and benefits, twice the average of the private sector. And across the country, at every level of government, the pattern is the same: Unionized public employees are making more money, receiving more generous benefits, and enjoying greater job security than the working families forced to pay for it with ever-higher taxes, deficits and debt.

How did this happen? Very quietly. The rise of government unions has been like a silent coup, an inside job engineered by self-interested politicians and fueled by campaign contributions.

Public employee unions contribute mightily to the campaigns of liberal politicians ($91 million in the midterm elections alone) who vote to increase government pay and workers. As more government employees join the unions and pay dues, the union bosses pour ever more money and energy into liberal campaigns. The result is that certain states are now approaching default. Decades of overpromising and fiscal malpractice by state and local officials have created unfunded public employee benefit liabilities of more than $3 trillion.
I have often said to friends at work who are politically inclined that the real battle of the next generation is between public employees and the rest of us.   When government gets so big that government workers become a constituency and a power center in politics, we are in deep trouble.   Any politician who stands for the following principles will get my vote.

First, contracts between governments and public employees are not suicide pacts.   Any contract between the federal government, a state, a county, a city, a school district, or any other public entity and its employees ought not be able to bind future generations to pay unreasonable level of benefits.   Public employees will have to be made to "give something back," to share in the sacrifice that we are all going to have to make to get out of the fiscal disaster we are currently hurtling toward.   A country where private employees making $60,000 with few benefits work until age 67 or 68 before they retire and are taxed in order to pay benefits to public employees who make $100,000 with Cadillac benefits and who may have retired at age 55... that's not a country that will survive very long.

Second, there ought not be a right to unionize for public employees, period.  This is a democracy.  We vote in our leaders.   They must be presumed to be employers who will not unfairly exploit the public workforce.  Unions are, therefore, unnecessary, because the evil that unions exist to prevent -- exploitation by business owners -- cannot as a matter of logic occur with a government employer.  

Pawlenty will be someone I will be watching over the next 6-8 months.   This "position paper" is a good start.  

A Big Decision on Obamacare

The federal district court for the District of Virginia today struck down the individual mandate in the health care bill known as "Obamacare."    Here's the decision.    For my money, here's the key reasoning:

The power of Congress to regulate a class of activities that in the aggregate has a substantial and direct effect on interstate commerce is well settled.  This even extends to noneconomic activity closely connected to the intended market. But these regulatory powers are triggered by some type of self-initiated action. Neither the Supreme Court nor any federal circuit court of appeals has extended Commerce Clause powers to compel an individual to involuntarily enter the stream of commerce by purchasing a commodity in the private market. In doing so, enactment of the Minimum Essential Coverage Provision exceeds the Commerce Clause powers vested in Congress under Article I.   
In other words,  Congress can regulate economic actions under the Commerce Clause on the theory that they impact interstate commerce.   But if you choose not to buy something -- health insurance -- Congress can't touch you.  

If the individual mandate falls, Obamacare as a whole must fall, because otherwise it makes no sense.   (It doesn't make much to begin with.)    The reason is simple:  the only way you can guarantee insurance coverage to people with pre-existing conditions (the "moral" centerpiece of the legislation, if it has one), is to force everyone to buy it from the outset.   Otherwise, rational economic actors would just go without insurance until they got sick, and then sign up.   In economics, it's called the "free rider" problem, and it's not something that wishful thinking or clever drafting can avoid.... it's a law of economics that is always and in all circumstances true, just like other scientific facts.  

This decision will undoubtedly be appealed, first to the 4th Circuit, then to the Supreme Court.  Likely other decisions in other circuits will come first, some agreeing with this logic, some disagreeing.   But with the growing displeasure of the electorate with Obamacare, I would expect a repeal long before the Supreme Court hears this case.

Birthdays Today

Two TV birthdays today, for actors on opposite ends of the spectrum from comic to serious.   Dick Van Dyke was born today in 1925.   Van Dyke's show in the early 1960s featuring Mary Tyler Moore, Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam is still one of the half dozen most memorable situation comedies.  

Also born today in 1957 -- it's tragic that he's only two years older than I am -- was Steve Buscemi, who's starring in the new HBO show about gangsters in Prohibition called "Boardwalk Empire."   It's a great show, and I can't wait for season 2.  

Girl Monday - SI Swimsuit Cover ca. 1967

It's very cold here in Wisconsin... probably around 5 degrees with a good wind for the walk to school for the kids.   So I thought we needed something to remind us that somewhere it's warm.  

Smile of the Day

Okay, so maybe this is unfortunate for Vikings season ticket holders.   But the collapse of the Metrodome roof after the Minneapolis blizzard was really cool.  

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Special Extra Birthday - The Chairman of the Board

Frank Sinatra was born today in 1915.   Sinatra deserves his own post for the simple reason that he is probably the greatest American singer of the 20th Century, whose voice best represents a distinctly American personality and artistry.   Also an underrated actor whose work in movies like The Manchurian Candidate and From Here to Eternity has stood the test of time.   Here is Sinatra, at his best, singing the great Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer song, "One for My Baby":

Birthdays Today

Really good birthdays today.   First, John Jay, the co-author with Madison and Hamilton of the Federalist Papers, was born today in 1745.   Jay was also President of the Continental Congress for part of the Revolutionary War, and the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court appointed by Washington.  A great American, a great man, perhaps marginally overshadowed by other founding fathers.  

Also born today, in 1821, the great French novelist, Gustave Flaubert.   Flaubert's two greatest works Madame Bovary and A Sentimental Education, probably both make my list of the greatest 25 or so novels ever written, with Madame Bovary in the top ten.  Flaubert's writing style is the main source of the best of modern fiction, with its precision and concreteness, and its avoidance of the empty or florid phrase.  

Also born today, in 1863, was Edvard Munch, whose paintings are among the most famous of the 20th Century: