Monday, September 29, 2008
Here, in this shocking little clip, is a settler-pup turning into a beast before our eyes. One can only imagine the dinner table conversation this benighted youth has been exposed to, and not exposed to, over the past ten years. Arthur Koestler, Orwell's friend, once warned about Jewish "claustrophilia." This boy is a very hard case. One can also imagine the officer he will turn into when he is conscripted in the coming years.
The most pathetic thing he says comes almost as an aside. Apparently, another settler youth passes by while the filming is going on, and shouts from afar: "shabbat shalom," "good Sabbath." Our pup interrupts his drunken curses to fling back, almost without thinking, "shabbat shalom."
I know, so don't tell me, that all faith traditions can produce children like this--that civilized tolerance is a kind of miracle, or certainly an achievement. I know about Christopher Hitchens' notebook. But as Jews the world over gather tonight to observe Rosh Hashanah, and hence our own faults, uppermost on our famously skeptical minds should be the production of this youth and, worse, what his "Sabbath" could possibly mean. We should also have a look at Ehud Olmert's exit interview. He has much to account for. But we are running out of time.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Friday, September 26, 2008
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Ira's local bank, Wachovia, was not willing to hold this kind of paper anymore, which did not exactly surprise me. I had been an editor at the Harvard Business Review in the late 1980s when the securitization of debt, including (after the S&L crisis) mortgage debt, was first being touted as the next big thing for retail banking and the word "global" began to mean something serious. So--purposefully, and with a certain pleasant curiosity about a maturing financial product I had seen at its conception--I started calling around to various mortgage companies: 800-numbers that got me to offices (with the background noise of call-centers) in Texas or Minnesota or Hawaii.I seemed always to be talking to "senior associates" (mostly named Mike, for some reason) who sounded more like ingratiating Direct TV salesmen than the laconic mortgage brokers I had filled out stacks of pages for when I bought my first home in Brooklyn back in 1979. Would Ira need a home inspection (I thought I should tip him off to tidy up some)? Not necessary. Would he need to bring proof of income? No, he owned the home outright, right? Could the points be added to the loan amount? Of course. Oh, but the mortgage company would not consider a loan of less than seventy thousand. (The commissions and transaction fees would not be worth the trouble, one of the Mikes confessed. Was I sure Ira could not use the extra money?)
This cheerful offer, of course, got my attention. There was no way Ira could afford such payments and no reason, given his circumstances, for the loan to have been entertained. I was skeptical, but not greatly alarmed--not the way I was when, say, West Bank settlers went to the hills above Nablus in 1976. This offer seemed to me just another way for the Mikes of the world to cash in on a boom, you know, like the real estate agents in LA a few years before. I felt vaguely happy for them. Now, of course, I see this was the DNA of the monster that ate Wall Street and is still hungry. (Ira took the smaller equity loan.)
Then again, I am writing this (quietly) from my wife's bedside at Mass General, where she is recovering from knee-replacement surgery, funded in large measure by Medicare. If the hospital suggests discharge on Wednesday instead of Tuesday, will I say no? The extra five grand is, shall we say, insured by us all; there is a moralizing hazard, too, which I would feel a little odd indulging in just at the moment. By the way, thirty-percent of what we pay to medical providers during our lifetimes comes in our last year of life. Imagine the size of Medicare's "bail-out" when boomer spouses have to decide on when to pull the plug, with others (that is, "us all") footing the bill?
LET ME BE clear. I am not upset that the bail-out is happening. It had to, just like the S&L bail-out did. The commonwealth is, among other things, a kind of insurer of last resort, the enabler (writes Adam Smith) of "commerce in general." I am not even upset that our Mikes made a buck. I am vaguely sorry, of course, for the people who, unlike Ira, recklessly took easy mortgages, or put "extra" money into mutual funds. But these people are now creating a good day for young home buyers (like my children), bankruptcy lawyers, etc. Nor am I particularly nervous about global capital not flowing back to our shores again, and fairly soon. What will the freshly-minted MBAs--the Mikes of the Kuwaiti or Chinese sovereign wealth funds--do with ten trillion dollars over the next decade? Invest in Ghana?
What I would be upset about is five foot leaps over seven foot pits, the continuing (mostly Republican) pretense that the prerogatives of commonwealth are temporary or do not legitimately exist: that the insurance the commonwealth provides comes along with dumb freedoms parading as market freedom. (Imagine a bail-out for car insurance companies in a roads system without traffic lights.) Paul Krugman shrewdly observes that the commonwealth has a right to own and manage a good part of what it invests in. People arguing for accountability should not fatuously be accused of socialism.
If insurance is a good thing, and government is a legitimate insurer, then we must end (to the extent that we can) triangular relations where the gainers of service have no stake in the cost of service; where people profit without moral hazard. This means more than new, harsh financial regulations for mortgage buying or rules for banking. It means, also (finally), single-payer health insurance, as in Canada, for example, where the buyers of health care negotiate with providers of health care in behalf of patients. It means government funded high speed train systems funded by gas taxes, so we are not all stuck with the catastrophes from global warming. It means more public universities, so we don't face an unemployment catastrophe in a generation. It means, in short, citizenship and social contract.
Friday, September 19, 2008
Monday, September 15, 2008
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Monday, September 8, 2008
Friday, September 5, 2008
Thursday, September 4, 2008
Charming. Plain spoken. Good looking. Earnest. Angry. Sort of a wild youth, but settled-down, family. University, but no intellectual, thank God. Early career in sports. Knows how to cheer. TV dinners, when necessary.
What the Bible prohibits (well, what the New Testament prohibits) are sins. "Choice" is a liberal's way of dressing up what's immoral. Thinks government should prohibit what's immoral. Yet sees government as too big, intrusive, and tending toward corruption. Thinks only an intellectual could notice a contradiction.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Spiro Agnew once said that the press was infected by liberalism. The problem, I think, is that it is infected by behaviorism. Day-in, day-out, we are talked about as bundles of "socialized" appetites, our freedom a matter of "preferences." So what we think is either the product of "ideology" (i.e., of our "demographic") or a kind of impulse buy. Our claims of fact (about history, society, etc.) are, by extension, seen as an expression of our material "interests" or, if we are deeply socialized, "values." You get the idea.
LET'S LOOK AT one of last week's least egregious examples, Sunday's "Meet The Press," the program whose former host's tragically premature death received a network tribute lasting longer than the Democratic National Convention itself. Out of a 48-minute broadcast, only about the first 13 minutes were actually devoted to some public figure--in this case, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty--meeting the press. The rest of the time, the press were meeting each other, and debating how they were being swayed.
The host, Tom Brokaw, began his line of questioning of Pawlenty reasonably enough, asking about the Republican National Convention, challenging McCain's choice of Sarah Palin and even parrying Pawlenty's fatuous comparison of Palin's experience to Obama's. There were obvious, but bearable, brand management questions about Palin's views: how her sex, pro-life position, NRA membership, etc., "complemented McCain's message of reform" (though any reporter who gave it a moment's thought would have realized that she sounded eerily like a female George W. Bush in 1996).
But then the interview turned to "creationism," which Palin believes should be taught "side-by-side with evolution" in public schools. "If there are two competing theories and they are credible," Pawlenty responded (with the look of sincerity that's no doubt served him well since his sophomore year), "allow them both to be presented, so that students could be exposed to...both...and make up their own minds."
Forgive me if I consider this a moment of, well, truth for any reporter. Brokaw responded in a way that seemed to defend evolution and challenge Pawlenty: "In the vast scientific community, do you think creationism has the same weight as evolution...?" (Brokaw even spoke about the "crisis" in education.) But look more carefully at his words--at the faux-quantitative language, the implication that "intelligent design" is wrong because some overwhelming consensus among scientists declares it to be, like denying the link between smoking and lung cancer--as if we were not talking about ascribing to a divine intelligence the power to reject science and inquiry itself.
If Brokaw took his profession seriously--if he were indeed a liberal in the classical sense (you know, like the framers of the constitution)--he would have forcefully, even proudly, followed-up:
"Sir, a scientist, like a journalist, for that matter, begins with the premise that we doubt everything, and applies rules of evidence to establish facts, which are subject to empirical test. A theory is therefore provisional in principle. But creationism is not a theory in this sense. It looks at things it pronounces too complex to be explained, and insists, not on doubt, or even mystery, but that these be explained with reference to a divine book, which, by the way, only a small part of the human race considers divine. This is not science. It is religion--and childish religion at that."
Any journalist who cannot say something like this (OK, more succinctly) at the drop of a hat cannot understand why, for example, a free press should exist at all; why we should not be ruled, say, by a despot claiming a revelation that the majority--afraid to be Left Behind--happens to want.
From there, "Meet The Press" went into the "round table," to experts identified by "partisan" ideology, or reporters claiming the authority of polls and insider gossip. Reporters at the table had no real facts to report, since the truth is relative (isn't that what Einstein said, ha-ha?), and they would not want to privilege one side's values over another's. Rather, they prove themselves competent by anticipating better or earlier than other reporters the ways campaigns "play." It's a democracy, right? So smart means predicting what most will come to believe, right? The talk was interrupted only by the scoop of Maria Bartiromo, a stock exchange "analyst" who had interviewed Palin. She lauded Palin's "expertise" in "energy," but if you were paying attention depicted that expertise as something you'd expect from a member of OPEC.
I URGE YOU to compare the Bartimoro segment to, say, Elizabeth Kolbert's recent "Comment" on energy policy in the New Yorker. Does the comparison in tone and substance not prompt a sickening feeling? (Can any "crisis" in education be allayed when Bartimoro's is the television journalism engulfing our teenage children?) Ask yourself, as Kolbert does, the only important question that speaks to a political journalist's real mission: "How important is it for candidates to tell the truth?"
The naïve (and, yes, partly elitist) answer is that the truth should be very important, since a liberal press should be there to embarrass candidates if they don't tell it; then, presumably, an educated citizenry will reject them (and, by the way, any electorate that can follow whether Mark Fuhrman planted OJ's bloody sock, or follow Al Gore's climbing graphs, can follow just about any public policy presented with rigor and common sense).
But the answer, it turns out, is that the truth is not at all important--not if you have a press that thinks, in principle, that truth is impossible, or special pleading, or subject to flocking behavior, or just for suckers. Let's not kid ourselves that a couple of terms of even a great presidency will make a difference.