December 25, 2009

A Christmas Miracle, more poignant than anything from the imagination of O Henry....

December 15, 2009

You know, there was a time when Joe Lieberman actually had a reputation for being a person of singular integrity. Thankfully, he's outgrown that stage:
Mr. Lieberman had supported the Medicare buy-in proposal in the past — both as the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee in 2000 and in more recent discussions about the health care system. In an interview this year, he reiterated his support for the concept.

But in the interview, Mr. Lieberman said that he grew apprehensive when a formal proposal began to take shape. He said he worried that the program would lead to financial trouble and contribute to the instability of the existing Medicare program.

And he said he was particularly troubled by the overly enthusiastic reaction to the proposal by some liberals, including Representative Anthony Weiner, Democrat of New York, who champions a fully government-run health care system.

Congressman Weiner made a comment that Medicare-buy in is better than a public option, it’s the beginning of a road to single-payer,” Mr. Lieberman said. “Jacob Hacker, who’s a Yale professor who is actually the man who created the public option, said, ‘This is a dream. This is better than a public option. This is a giant step.’”
Yes, this is a grown man, an elected member of the most august and exclusive club in the country, who if the people had had their way in 2000 would have spent eight years a heartbeat away from the Presidency, saying that he changed his mind on an important issue, one that will have definite life-and-death consequences in the real world, because a liberal congressman said he agreed with him (incidentally, the quote from "Prof. Hacker" is completely made-up). Is there no bottom to the man?

December 14, 2009

Look out, Tiger Woods: This is the sort of story that comes out everytime she has a new movie to promote.

November 25, 2009

You ask me if I have a God complex?: Well, let me tell you something... it's kinda cool being compared favorably with Alec Baldwin in the comments section at this blog. The post itself, written by someone who could be generously described as a poor man's Jonah Goldberg, is a dull, tired piece o' snark rather typical of blogospheric "wit". But the posts that follow, a few of which were not written by my sockpuppets, are classic.

November 18, 2009

France "1", Eire 1 (O.T.): It figgered this would be the way France would qualify for the World Cup.

November 17, 2009

One of the more fascinating transitions in public opinion has to be how Barry Goldwater evolved from being a reactionary, anti-Civil Rights political hack who never met a foreign policy problem he didn't want to sic General LeMay on, to a distinguished, honorable sentry of libertarian values. Richard Nixon gets blamed for the Republican dive to the bottom, the "Southern Strategy," but Tricky Dick never was so audacious as to make Alabama and Mississippi his electoral base, and if it had been up to Goldwater, we still would be recognizing Chaing Kai-shek as the true ruler of China, while fighting to the death to hold on to sovereignty over the Panama Canal.

As for his fabled libertarianism, it sets the bar pretty low to associate that term with the former Arizona Senator, at least during the 1950's and 60's. As one of Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy's closest friends and associates in the Senate, he was more than willing to use the power of government to harass political enemies, as he himself tried to do in the late-50's against Walter Ruether (his ideal labor leader of the period was James Hoffa !!) His opposition to Civil Rights legislation, based on what he claimed was its emphasis on encroaching federal power, didn't lead to any denunciations on his part against George Wallace or Ross Barnett. His "libertarianism" was of the Chamber-of-Commerce variety, more a smokescreen to back an agenda that comforts the wealthy than anything that truly strengthens the rights and liberties of man.

So what happened to change the perception of the late Senator? I suspect that when his prodigy, Ronald Reagan, was elected, there was a need to create a counterpoint on the right between the electable pol and the principled ideologue, and Goldwater fit the bill to perfection. Even though Reagan had won by a landslide in 1980, Goldwater barely won reelection that year, so there may have been jealosy on his part as well. The Christian Right, many of whom had been lured into politics by the '64 campaign, also came out strongly against the Supreme Court nomination of fellow-Arizonian Sandra Day O'Connor in 1981, and Goldwater's angry response in defense of his homey brought to the fore issues, like abortion, that hadn't played much of a role in his previous campaigns. By the time he was out of politics in 1986, he had found a niche as a critic of the same conservative activism that he had once led, and the revisionist interpretation of his frightening politics of the '50's and '60's began to take hold.

November 05, 2009

The best interpretation of the 2009 Election Results:

October 20, 2009

Is FoxNews a "news organization"? I guess it depends on whether you think professional wrestling is a "sport"...there is a long and gloried tradition in the American free press in the existence of newspapers, journals, and the like that are controlled by or give allegiance to a specific faction or ideology. For most of the 18th and 19th Centuries, there were, in fact, specific newspapers that were directly financed by the White House, as well as by the opposing party; such was the spoils system that juiced the American government for much of this country's history. No one ever claimed that Andrew Jackson or Thomas Jefferson was trying to overthrow the First Amendment by not allowing the other side's publications equal access to the White House.

Even sillier than the faux-outrage over the entirely sensible approach by the Obama Administration towards propoganda media outlets is the notion that it is somehow comparable to Nixon's Enemies List, or even to the actions of totalitarian dictatorships. Nixon tried to use the power of the federal government to coerce the free press, most particularly by using the IRS to go after perceived political opponents, using the FCC to strip reputable news organizations of broadcast spectrum based on how they covered the White House, and bringing anti-trust actions against the three networks. So far, the Obama Administration has merely called the hucksters at FoxNews "liars," which one must admit is a relatively benign form of oppression, and certainly not the sort of thing that will convince anyone with a compelling need to have their thinking done for them by O'Reilly or Beck to avoid the channel.

FoxNews is a news channel in the same sense that The Undertaker is a real "athlete." Pro Wrestling, or something like it, has been popular in this country for almost as long as people have attended or watched athletic competition. Vince McMahon didn't invent the notion of a staged, artificial sporting event that capitalizes on the blood lust of the audience; Roman gladitorial contests could often be just as fake as SummerSlam. Pro wrestling can often be as fascinating to watch as more mainstream athletic contests, and the characters that are promoted can be as interesting as those found in classic drama. But the fact that pro wrestling gets better ratings than tennis or track does not make it a better sport, or even a sport at all, and President Obama should be under no obligation to treat FoxNews as being somehow equivalent to CNN or the network news divisions.

October 15, 2009

October 12, 2009

In this month's always fascinating Central District Bankruptcy News, we find out:
1. Fatburger, IndyMac Bank, and Lenny Dykstra have recently joined the Realm of the Financially Undead;

2. Bankruptcy has gone up 70% in the LA Area over the first eight months of last year; Chapter 13's, the favored avenue of homeowners threatened with foreclosure, is up 56%. Nationally, the number of Chapter 11 filings has nearly doubled over the same totals from last year; and

3. The Courts are closed on Columbus Day. Is that still a holiday?

October 05, 2009

On this, the last day of my 46th year on the planet, I give you something that still gives me the chills:

September 27, 2009

In case you missed it, the big news this morning was the arrest of Roman Polanski in Switzerland on thirty-year old charges of drugging and raping a 13-year old girl, the facts of which he has never contested. Or, as Jerralyn Merritt puts it:
The Swiss have arrested Roman Polanski on an outstanding warrant from California relating to his 1977 prosecution on a sexual assault charge. They were laying in wait, as they knew Polanski, who had always been allowed to freely travel to the country, was en route to accept an international film award. (citation omitted)

France is outraged. So am I. Polanski has lived in France since fleeing the U.S. in 1978 after the Judge, at the behest of a prosecutor not involved in the case, re-negged on a plea deal and was going to sentence Polanski to prison instead of the agreed upon time served in exchange for his guilty plea.
Ms. Merritt has been very important to this blog in the past, enabling me to have access to a much wider audience, but she's wrong about this. I, too, am outraged, but more over the fact that L.A. prosecutors in the late-70's had so little concern about enforcing the laws prohibiting rape and pedophilia that they actually thought they could get away with offering the director a plea deal that didn't involve a substantial amount of time in prison. It's no wonder the victim would rather not have to go through this whole thing again; the first time round she clearly did not have the support of those whose job it was to enforce the law. It turns out that the only person who acted heroically in this matter was the publicity-whore judge (who, being dead, can't defend himself from the recent attacks) who in the end wouldn't give Polanski a slap on the wrist.

Let's look at this another way. If a non-famous person was to drug and rape a woman of your acquaintance, you would be properly angry and outraged. You would rightly anticipate that if the authorities caught the assailant, he would get something more than a suspended sentence, and you would probably be right. Then realize that the victim in this case was younger than Dakota Fanning, and just a few years older than President Obama's daughters are now. Certainly, someone without the notoriety of Polanski should expect the judicial system to come down hard, and like the non-famous people who meet up with Chris Hansen on Dateline NBC, who have committed the less-serious offense of having only attempted to have sex with a minor, would probably see jail time.

It is very unlikely that a non-famous person who drugged and raped a thirteen-year old girl would be lionized in France, defended as a political refugee and allowed to travel throughout Europe for thirty years. Polanski has had many tragedies in his life, from losing parents at Auschwitz to seeing his pregnant wife murdered. But most people who had parents die in concentration camps don't go on to drug and rape thirteen year old girls. There were at least six other victims of the Manson Family, all of whom had people who loved them, but as far as I can tell, no one else has tried to parlay that into avoiding a prison sentence for a serious felony. And considering Polanski's other amorous encounters with teenage girls, such as the fifteen-year old Nastassia Kinski

September 04, 2009

Banana Republic Redux: It's a pity that this story hasn't received more play. I suspect that the notion of a military coup deposing a democratically-elected leader in Central America is a classic "dog-bites-man" story, so when it happened in Honduras this summer, it may have induced a collective yawn in the media. The junta has also utilized a sophisticated media campaign to justify its actions, which involved the expulsion of the rightful Prime Minister, Manuel Zelaya, in the middle of the night while he was still in his pajamas, and installing a puppet regime, which according to the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights, has instituted:
"a pattern of disproportionate use of public force" by the military and police, which has resulted in the deaths of at least four people, dozens of wounded, and thousands of arbitrary detentions. It also found that the de facto government has abused its emergency powers, using the military to limit freedom of assembly and expression. The commission confirmed that women had suffered sexual violence, and that threats, detentions, and beatings of journalists had created an atmosphere of intimidation among critical media outlets. While the commission reported some serious acts of violence and vandalism by protesters, it noted that the majority of demonstrations were peaceful.
As with most rightist coups in Central America, deaths and "disappearances" of political dissidents are becoming endemic in the new Honduras.

The rationale its shills have used to justify the coup, that President Zelaya "broke the law" by proposing to amend the Constitution to allow future Presidents the ability to run for reelection, doesn't survive the giggle test. The real reason he was overthrown was that he was becoming closely associated with that scourge of right wing oligarchs throughout the region, Hugo Chavez, although there is no evidence he was preparing to lead his country into Chavez' form of benign despotry. The silence of the Obama Administration is shortsighted, since it only serves to strengthen the cause of people like Chavez, who can point to the deposal of any popular leader by military thugs as typical Yankee behaviour towards anyone who challenges the interests of American businesses in Central America.

September 03, 2009

Something that works well any day, but particularly on this date:

August 31, 2009

One of the most commented aspects of the weekend's memorials to the late Senator Edward Kennedy was a letter he wrote to Pope Benedict shortly before he died. In the letter, he described what had been his life's work, as well as his personal failings:
I was diagnosed with brain cancer more than a year ago and although I continue treatment, the disease is taking its toll on me. I am 77 years old and preparing for the next passage of life. I have been blessed to be part of a wonderful family and both of my parents, particularly my mother, kept our Catholic faith at the center of our lives. That gift of faith has sustained and nurtured and provides solace to me in the darkest hours. I know that I have been an imperfect human being, but with the help of my faith I have tried to right my path. I want you to know Your Holiness that in my nearly 50 years of elective office I have done my best to champion the rights of the poor and open doors of economic opportunity. I have worked to welcome the immigrant, to fight discrimination and expand access to health care and education. I have opposed the death penalty and fought to end war.

Those are the issues that have motivated me and have been the focus of my work as a United States senator. I also want you to know that even though I am ill, I am committed to do everything I can to achieve access to health care for everyone in my country. This has been the political cause of my life. I believe in a conscience protection for Catholics in the health field and I will continue to advocate for it as my colleagues in the Senate and I work to develop an overall national health policy that guarantees health care for everyone. I have always tried to be a faithful Catholic, Your Holiness, and though I have fallen short through human failings, I have never failed to believe and respect the fundamental teachings of my faith. I continue to pray for God's blessings on you and on our church and would be most thankful for your prayers for me.
In fact, pundits and pols who view the Roman Catholic faith as little more than a monolithic entity, obsessed with issues like abortion and gay marriage, as well as the best way to thwart investigations into pastoral pedophilia, miss the theological core of the Church, which has always been its message that faith can be measured only through action.

As an agnostic, I don't attend mass regularly anymore; in fact, other than the occasional marriage, baptism, or funeral, I almost never set foot in a church. But having been raised in the Church, the notion that you can serve God only by loving your fellow man is one that still motivates me, and influences how I live and what I believe. Perhaps the best encapsulation of the essential Christian belief comes from this oft-quoted passage, from the Book of Matthew, Chapter 25:
But when the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the angels with him, then shall he sit on the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all the nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats; and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungry, and fed thee? or athirst, and gave thee drink? And when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? And when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me.
Clearly, the last sentence, in bold, describes the life and legacy of Senator Kennedy to a tee.

And what of those who believe that the best thing to do for the poor is nothing? To the free market libertarians of the day, and those who could have serenely let the Mary Jo Kopechnes of the world die of cancer because they happen to be uninsured, Matthew continues:
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry, and ye did not give me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not; sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

Then shall they also answer, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungry, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of these least, ye did it not unto me. And these shall go away into eternal punishment: but the righteous into eternal life.
Now, I'm not a believe in Hell, but a prolonged banishment for such folks into the political wilderness would suit me just fine.

August 26, 2009

EMK (1932-2009): Two takes on the passing of the late Lion of the Senate. From Marc Cooper:
During various Democratic primary campaigns over the years, in California, Nevada, New Hampshire and many, many times in Iowa have been to rallies that featured Ted Kennedy. And unless you've been to one of these shindigs, it's hard to imagine just how stunningly popular Kennedy remained among the Democratic base. I don't care where the venue was, or who the candidate was he was backing, Teddy was the Main Event. Not an overstatement to say, right up through the Obama campaign, the "Liberal Lion" was a true political rock star. The first few times I saw the electric response he evoked among the party faithful, I was sort of taken back. But the magic was real. Kennedy, in his elder years and chubbier than ever, would amble up to the stage and unfailingly, unleash a red meat tirade, an old-fashioned barn burner than would set the crowd ablaze as he leaned on the podium, sweated like no tomorrow and turned beet red as he continued to thunder. Anyone who underestimates the mystique of the Kennedy name fails to understand the soul of your average Democrat.
And from Matt Welch:
Having spent most of my adult life around liberals, not conservatives, and on the West Coast, not the East, I always had a difficult time recognizing the Ted Kennedy of Republican Convention speechcraft. (And, in fact, it's difficult to reconcile the way Republicans talked about Kennedy at their gatherings with the way they talked about him on the Senate floor, or when joining with him to pass bipartisan legislation.) Not that he wasn't a bloated caricature, and one with blood on his hands, but rather that he just didn't mean all that much to my liberal friends. (My liberal friends' dads, though are another story.) He was arguably more an icon of the opposing team than the political tendency he represented, more interesting to nostalgia-addicted Baby Boomers than to the majority of people who now participate in politics.
Well, Matt, one thing you couldn't accuse Ted Kennedy of being was a libertarian (or a Libertarian, for that matter), so it's perhaps no surprise that your "liberal" West Coast friends couldn't stand the guy. He believed that the world could be made a better place, and that no human suffering should be tolerated. He is already missed.

August 24, 2009

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, on how the change we can believe in won't ever happen:
There’s a lot to be said about the financial disaster of the last two years, but the short version is simple: politicians in the thrall of Reaganite ideology dismantled the New Deal regulations that had prevented banking crises for half a century, believing that financial markets could take care of themselves. The effect was to make the financial system vulnerable to a 1930s-style crisis — and the crisis came.

“We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals,” said Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937. “We know now that it is bad economics.” And last year we learned that lesson all over again.

Or did we? The astonishing thing about the current political scene is the extent to which nothing has changed.

The debate over the public option has, as I said, been depressing in its inanity. Opponents of the option — not just Republicans, but Democrats like Senator Kent Conrad and Senator Ben Nelson — have offered no coherent arguments against it. Mr. Nelson has warned ominously that if the option were available, Americans would choose it over private insurance — which he treats as a self-evidently bad thing, rather than as what should happen if the government plan was, in fact, better than what private insurers offer.

But it’s much the same on other fronts. Efforts to strengthen bank regulation appear to be losing steam, as opponents of reform declare that more regulation would lead to less financial innovation — this just months after the wonders of innovation brought our financial system to the edge of collapse, a collapse that was averted only with huge infusions of taxpayer funds.

So why won’t these zombie ideas die?

Part of the answer is that there’s a lot of money behind them. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something,” said Upton Sinclair, “when his salary” — or, I would add, his campaign contributions — “depend upon his not understanding it.” In particular, vast amounts of insurance industry money have been flowing to obstructionist Democrats like Mr. Nelson and Senator Max Baucus, whose Gang of Six negotiations have been a crucial roadblock to legislation.

But some of the blame also must rest with President Obama, who famously praised Reagan during the Democratic primary, and hasn’t used the bully pulpit to confront government-is-bad fundamentalism. That’s ironic, in a way, since a large part of what made Reagan so effective, for better or for worse, was the fact that he sought to change America’s thinking as well as its tax code.

How will this all work out? I don’t know. But it’s hard to avoid the sense that a crucial opportunity is being missed, that we’re at what should be a turning point but are failing to make the turn.
Krugman may be overly pessimistic, particularly about health care. There are two events likely to happen in the fall that will almost certainly change the dynamic of the whole debate: one, which is talked about frequently, is the explosion of cases of swine flu, and the possibility that a deadly strain will develop that will necessitate governmental intervention; the other, which is discussed, if at all, sotto voce, is the likely death of Senator Edward Kennedy in the next few weeks from brain cancer, which will create a win-one-for-the-Gipper situation within the Party that will make it almost suicidal for even the most mossbacked of Blue Cross/Blue Dog Senate Democrat to join a Republican filibuster on the issue.

It's also useful to point out that Krugman was a vitriolic critic of then-candidate Obama when he sought the nomination against Hillary Clinton. One of the reasons that "Reaganism" isn't "dead", of course, is that it represents an historical, archetypal belief embedded in the American political system: the notion that government can be a potential menace, and that "big government" is to be feared. It is a notion that rests comfortably with an equally engrained view in American political culture, that the people, acting together, can accomplish anything. It's why people can go to health care rallies and demand that goverment not touch their Medicare, or why the public option does spectacularly well in polling, while "government intervention" in health care doesn't, even though both describe identical policies.

August 17, 2009

Hopefully this will get you into a late-summer mood:

August 12, 2009

Isn't the story here not that by a 34-21% margin, the public is more, rather than less, sympathetic to the cause of the "Town Hell" protestors, but that 45% of the public is unmoved? To put it another way, according to Gallup, 66% of the public, or nearly 2 out of 3 people, aren't sympathetic at all to the opinions or tactics of the anti-reform brigades.


Such an interpretation is consistent with other polling numbers, which show a majority of Americans support the health care proposals backed by the President and Democrats. The only thing that's changed has been the numbers who believe Obama has handled the issue well, which really goes without saying; the only interpretation that seems to be consistent with the inept strategy the White House has pursued on this issue is that the President has little passion or interest in the notion that health care should be available and affordable for everyone, and is therefore disengaged. But the public, at least so far, hasn't held that against its backers in Congress.


There is an historical precedent for the seeming disconnect between the public attitudes towards the President's handling of the issue, their general lack of sympathy to the Town Hall Demonstrators, and their widespread support for the actual reforms being debated in Congress. In Rick Perlstein's masterful account of the late-60's, Nixonland, the book's protagonist masterfully (for a time) rode the waves of a similar cultural disconnect over the Vietnam War. Opinion polls consistently showed a majority believing that US involvement in Southeast Asia was a mistake, and that it would better for the US to withdraw sooner rather than later. Nixon shared those sentiments, and admitted to confidants back in the mid-60's that the US could not win in Vietnam.

Those same polls also showed that the most unpopular group in America was the long-haired hippies demonstrating against the war. And in spite of a policy which encompassed a dramatic increase in bombing, particularly civilian, non-military targets in North Vietnam, as well as an escallation of the war into the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia, Nixon overwhelmingly won a second term, and consistently received public backing for his policies in Southeast Asia. He did it by shifting the terms of the debate, from whether we should be in Vietnam, to the best way of ending the conflict. And his perfect foil in that debate was the anti-war demonstrators.

Similarly, in the health care reform debate, the public may not think Obama has done an effective job on the issue, but it is also clear that it supports the specific policies he's backing. As in the late-60's, the loud, boorish demonstrators offer an effective foil to the President, in counterpoint to the vast majority in the Gallup Poll, who can be described thusly as
...another voice, it is a quiet voice in the tumult of the shouting. It is the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non shouters, the non demonstrators. They're not racists or sick; they're not guilty of the crime that plagues the land; they are black, they are white; they're native born and foreign born; they're young and they're old.

They work in American factories, they run American businesses. They serve in government; they provide most of the soldiers who die to keep it free. They give drive to the spirit of America. They give lift to the American dream. They give steel to the backbone of America.

They're good people. They're decent people; they work and they save and they pay their taxes and they care.
A Silent Majority, if you will....

July 30, 2009

Cluelessness, thy name is Plaschke: Condensing moral complexity into its basic historically revisionsist nugget, the scribe writes:

Is the taint that (Manny)Ramirez and David Ortiz just brought to two of the most celebrated World Series titles in recent history going to spread to these Dodgers?

With Thursday's news that both men flunked steroid tests in 2003, the 2004 and 2007 World Series championships won by the Boston Red Sox must be considered fraudulent.
That's right, "fraudulent", as in "done or obtained with deceit or trickery", having "knowingly misrepresented a material fact" in the process, if I might use the dictionary definitions of the word. To think, Manny and Ramirez juicing the year before cheated Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield out of the World Series rings that rightfully should have been theirs the year after. As Atrios often says about stupidity, "IT BURNS !! IT BURNS !!"

The reaction in Mannywood this summer about the revelations that Mr. Ramirez had been on the Juice for awhile, just like the reactions in Boston today over Mr. Ortiz, and in New York over the most formidable opponent of the 2004 and 2007 Bosox, A-Rod, has been telling: the average fan made his peace some time ago with the notion that athletes will cut corners to gain a competitive edge, and in fact considers it a feature, not a bug, when it relates to the hometown star. Baseball fans are as likely going to be disappointed that a local hero was enhanced as college football fans are "shocked" that the kids are making money on the side. We just have different priorities than the people who cover sports for a living.

July 20, 2009

I have only the vaguest idea what this means, but it sounds funny:
Have term limits actually been useful? I feel like that's a horse that left the barn in the mid-1990s, only to, like Wildfire, ride eternally into the winds of our mind.
--Matt Welch, 7/20/09.
Return from the Beltway, young Matt....

July 11, 2009

I probably mentioned at some point that my favorite book from the last ten years was Moneyball, Michael Lewis' examination of how the Oakland A's were able to compete at the highest level of baseball for awhile in spite of having the lowest payroll and one of the least favorable market situations of any team in professional sports. Evidently, someone in Hollywood has seen blockbuster potential in the philosophy of Billy Beane, according to the LA Times:
Aaron Sorkin is best known in Hollywood as a screenwriter and TV producer supreme, having put his high-style signature on everything from “The West Wing” and “Sports Night” to “Charlie Wilson’s War.” But now, as Variety first reported Thursday, Sorkin has a new role—he’s the closer on “Moneyball,” the much-ballyhooed baseball movie at Sony Pictures that the studio shut down just days before shooting was scheduled to begin late last month.

The movie, which had Brad Pitt slated to star as Billy Beane, the maverick general manager of the Oakland A’s who was the focus of Michael Lewis’ bestselling “Moneyball” book, had its plug pulled after director Steven Soderbergh turned in a last-minute script revision that the studio felt took the film in a radically different, not to mention wildly uncommercial, new direction. But the news that Sorkin has appeared in the bullpen—get used to it, we’re going to employ a lot of baseball lingo here—sends a clear message that Sony is determined to keep the movie alive.

(snip)

So why would Sony hire Sorkin when the studio already had a perfectly good shooting script, penned by the Oscar-winning writer Steve Zaillian? The most likely reason: The studio wanted to send a message to Brad Pitt that it was still absolutely, incontestably behind the picture. If Pitt were to walk away from the project, it could deal a fatal blow to the picture, which is already considered something of a commercial risk, since baseball movies have zero appeal outside of the U.S., meaning that the movie would have to make its investment back solely on the strength of its domestic box-office performance. Pitt is considered indispensable, since the studio has always known it had an extremely short list of A-list stars who could be both believable and bankable as the real-life Beane, a charismatic, fortysomething ballplayer turned crafty but cerebral baseball theoretician. When it comes to potential stars, the drop-off after Pitt is steep.
No offense meant towards Mr. Sorkin or Mr. Jolie, but has anyone at Sony actually read Moneyball? I thought the whole point of Moneyball was that "stars" like Brad Pitt are never indispensable, that there was a plenty of talent out there that hadn't been recognized, that was undervalued, and that a team like the A's could exploit that without spending themselves into the poorhouse. Why spend $10 million on Brad Pitt when you can get Jon Hamm for a lot less?

But, you say, having an "A-List" star on the marquee guarantees success at the box office. Having Brad Pitt involved in your project automatically means the film will be a hit (putting aside Burn After Reading, Troy, and Meet Joe Black, of course), since the film-going audience will necessarily want to see anything he's in, right?

Well, no, actually, it doesn't, particularly for a project like this. As the Times notes, baseball films have little audience outside the United States, so keeping costs down takes on paramount importance. Billy Beane's innovative approach to baseball is equally applicable to the entertainment industry: fans pay money to see winners, not pricey stars. In a world where The Hangover can earn over $200 million starring Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper and Mike Tyson, and where Slumdog Millionaire can make a fortune and win Oscars with a cast unknown outside of Mumbay, the business model Sony is using is as outdated as the "old-school" philosophy baseball GM's used when they picked talent based on batting average and base stealing.

June 27, 2009

PhoeNixWatch: Another year, another splendid performance...from the Grey Lady herself:
The Almeida Theatre in North London, meanwhile, is boasting the finest new play seen at that address since its artistic director, Michael Attenborough, took over the running of the Islington playhouse in 2003. Consumed with climate change, love and loss, and the ways in which coincidence can make over our lives, “When the Rain Stops Falling” also inadvertently acts as a structural primer for the return to the London stage this week of “Arcadia.”To a degree exceeding Mr. Stoppard’s 1993 masterwork, the Australian writer Andrew Bovell’s comparably mournful play shuttles swiftly between time periods and continents to offer up a wounding theatrical mosaic that tells of two families — one in England, the other in Australia — across four generations and 80 years, from 1959 to 2039. (The production runs through July 4.)

(snip)

Among a finely calibrated ensemble, acting honors surely go to Phoebe Nicholls as the older version of the solitary Elizabeth, who must bid farewell first to a husband, then a son. “If you touch me, I will break,” she remarks calmly to the Australia-bound Gabriel, nursing a glass of her preferred red wine. As Ms. Nicholls speaks the line, you fully believe in a fragility that is one step away from finally going snap.
Which reminds me of a point made this week by Matt Welch over at the Reason blog, concerning the passing this week of the King of Pop. Riffing off of an old Bill James piece on the age of Phil Niekro, Welch notes:
Even more so than his fellow '58ers Madonna and Prince, Michael Jackson had a long and bizarre relationship with age. He was old enough to be in the public eye for more than four decades, young enough to live in a children's zoo. He recorded his first number-one single just two months after man first walked on the moon, yet sang like a castrato and surrounded himself with tweens. Young enough to have never developed a beer gut, old enough to have a decline phase lasting a full quarter-century. So just how old was Michael Jackson?

Michael Jackson was older than Appalachian wanderluster Mark Sanford, older than beloved Slate columnist Eliot Spitzer, and older than the 44th president of the United States. He was older than silver-haired Congressman Mike Pence, silver-bearded Nespresso pitchman George Clooney, and silver-tongued trial lawyer Erin Brockovich. Remember John Kennedy, Jr., the George magazine publisher who died in a plane crash 10 years ago? He was younger than Michael Jackson. As are Magic Johnson, Tai Babilonia, and Stan Van Gundy.
Perhaps Welch's child-like obsession with whether state government spending is exceeding the inflation rate caused him to miss other examples (as well as falsely id'ing Ms. Brockovich as a "trial lawyer"). Did you know Michael Jackson was older than Nadia Comenici? Diego Maradona? John Elway? Isiah Thomas? Gary Lineker? Wayne Gretsky? Marcus Allen? And don't get me started on Dan Marino or John McEnroe....

Joan Jett and Shawn Cassidy are of more recent vintage than the Moonwalking One. So is Welch's favorite journalist, award-winning columnist Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. Had Kurt Cobain or Princess Diana lived to see the sunset last night, they still would have been younger than Jacko. Michael Jackson was older than Mr. Blonde, Michael Madsen, as well as Nuke LaLoosh himself, Tim Robbins.

David Remnick, the Editor in Chief of the New Yorker, is younger than Michael Jackson. So are Brian Williams, Anderson Cooper, and Shepherd Smith. Same with the hosts of Meet the Press and This Week. So is Sarah Palin, and likely next-PM David Cameron.

However, Phoebe Nicholls is, was, and forever shall be, older than Michael Jackson.

June 24, 2009

Arguably, the most poorly-time LA Times analytical piece this year. I guess a lot can change in three days....

May 26, 2009

Intellectual Bankruptcy: There's much to find disreputable about the analysis contained here and here (obviously, taking a "blame the bitch" attitude is almost always the wrong tactic when trying to understand why people have been unable to make sub-prime mortgage payments, much less claiming that a bankruptcy filed when the spouse was married to another is "material information" that needs to be disclosed when discussing one's personal debt situation), but the notion that filing bankruptcy twice in ten years is tantamount to "serial bankruptcy" is, safe to say, just a little bit nuts. The serial filing that was meant to be discouraged by the 2005 BARF act, as well as 11 U.S.C. Section 109(g), concerns multiple filings in the same year, not two filings nine years apart. In other words, restrictions on "serial filings" are meant to dissuade people from filing one case after another, thereby using the automatic stay even when there is no hope for discharge or reorganization, not to label people who hit bad streaks during different decades as sleazebags.

As I recall, Ms. McArdle was the same person who rejected the notion that a high number of bankruptcy filings are related to medical woes because actual medical debts (that is, invoices sent out by hospitals and doctors) constitute a relatively small percentage of scheduled claims in bankruptcy court, apparently unaware that most medical debts (at least among my clients) are actually paid for with credit cards or are sold to collection agencies. Since she also makes the claim that tax debts are not dischargeable in bankruptcy, a patently false notion, it would perhaps be best if she left future discussions of the topic to people who actually know what they're talking about, like, say, someone with an actual law degree (link via Matt Welch).

May 20, 2009

Did you know that we had an election in California yesterday? In an odd-numbered year, yet?

Well, I didn't vote, nor did anyone I know, but there was an election, of sorts, mostly concerning the matter of budgeting processes in Sacramento, which no one outside of the editorial pages, the septuagenarian listeners of talk-radio, and the odd Chamber of Commerce broadsheet cares about. It was mostly hyped as a way of giving the finger to the Governator, with Democrats particularly gleeful about avenging The Recall (which also occurred in an odd-numbered year, albeit one where a statistically significant number of people voted), while Republicans, comfortable in the stability they possess as a permanent non-governing minority, were happy to stick in their shivs at the one member of their party who actually has to play a role in the state's future.

Right now, the state legislature is talking about making deep, deeeeeeeep cuts, which is mainly designed to scare up support for either floating a series of bonds, in order to prevent school shutdowns and prison closures, or even better, to actually default on bond payments that are coming due, sort of a "bankruptcy" for sovereign entities. It's the sort of thing that would be a big deal if federalism itself wasn't so outdated. If politics is Hollywood for ugly people, than state governments are its Z-List.

Whatever Sacramento shall deny its citizens, Obama will provide. The few (the happy few) who voted yesterday know all too well that those services that state and local governments have traditionally provided are going to be provided by the federal government in the future, and they are not unhappy about that prospect. You don't see the voters trying to pass referenda abolishing schools or prisons; they just don't want the inefficiency of fifty state bureaucracies having to administer these functions any more. They may not die as quickly as the newspaper and the motion picture industries have, but the concept of "state governments" is every bit the dinosaur.

May 06, 2009

"It was the big cop, Calahan, that did this to me. I have rights !! I have rights !!"

I think that's how the line went in Dirty Harry. That scene, where the serial killer is being wheeled into a hospital after having just been beat up, comes to mind when I hear the whining coming from the dissenting creditors in the Chrysler bankruptcy. As it turns out, the speculators are going to make out like bandits anyway (come to think of it, the Scorpio Killer hired a third party to beat him up), and now that the judge has all but validated the sale, telling the dissenters to put up or shut up by matching or bettering the deal made by Fiat, it's impossible to say that they're "getting screwed."

Lastly, arguments that this is somehow contra to precedent or some sacred analysis of holy bankruptcy text are forgetting two essential points: first, minority interests in a class get the short end of the stick all the time; and second, even if the sale were to be defeated, and Chrysler was forced to propose a Chapter 11 plan rather than a quickie sale, the speculators would likely have their secured liens stripped (ie, treated as unsecured debt), since the corporate assets are almost certainly insufficient to repay all the secured claimants. For the speculators to get more than what they are being offered right now, the bankruptcy would have to be converted to Chapter 7, and the assets of Chrysler liquidated. Filing a bankruptcy, then selling the company to a third party right off the bat, happens all the time, and its up to the legal system to determine whether its in the best interest of the company and its shareholders.

Liquidation of the company may, in the long run, be the optimal result. But with the Chapter 11 process only now beginning, our legal system is going to allow Chrysler some time to see if it can reorganize. Contrary to what many on the right may have thought, bankruptcy is not automatically a system designed to screw uppity workers and their pensions; it is a set of rules and procedures geared to allow people and companies a fresh start. As libertarian editor Matt Welch puts it, better to give the "controlled force of bankruptcy" a chance, and let Fiat try to sell Jeeps for awhile.

UPDATE [5/7]: Mickey Kaus responds, asking why it was necessary for the government to allegedly "strongarm" the creditors into accepting the sale to Fiat without letting the bankruptcy run its course and simply let the judge do the strongarming. Perhaps the best answer to that is that there is well and truly a new sheriff in town, one who is not going to bend over for the interests of Wall Street. Indeed, Presidents make decisions to intervene (or not intervene, which would have the same effect on the parties) in corporate reorganizing all the time, but usually, its the union and its worker that feel the pressure to surrender their position. The law hasn't changed, it's the scales of justice that are tipped differently.

With this President, any resolution that keeps the company afloat is going to be less-disadvantageous to the workers, and the major creditors (as opposed to the small-time speculators who are challenging the sale) saw the writing on the wall: either give up some of their position, or prepare to see the company liquidated, and their position completely wiped out. Quickly resolving the Chrysler situation allows the company to get back to selling cars quickly, and allows the creditors of the company a chance to recoup some of their losses. And since the judge has (so far) approved of the procedure to quickly sell the company to Fiat, any allegations of "strongarming" by the President should be viewed skeptically, even if "strongarming" was in and of itself a bad thing.

May 01, 2009

American Royalty:

On Thursday, the Senate took up the issue of whether to eliminate the exception in the Bankruptcy Code which allows mortgage lenders to prevent the bifurcation of certain of their loans into secured and unsecured portions in bankruptcy, or in plainer language, the “cramdown” legislation. It was defeated, 51-45, with a dozen Democrats voting to preserve the Carter Era Valentine to the nation’s bankers. Ironically, it was the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party in the Senate who came out most passionately for the principles of Free Market capitalism, whilst their conservative counterparts on both sides of the aisle voted to maintain the subsidy.

Inevitably, the cramdown legislation voted down will pass, if not in this Congress, then at some future time, since the current law represents governmental protectionism at its most illogical and nonsensical, a business subsidy without rhyme or reason. To understand why, it is helpful to examine the absurdity through an example.

Let’s say an individual buys five identical properties. Each property is the same acreage, contains the same square footage, rooms, and looks exactly the same. Each property looks exactly the same, in fact, and is able to obtain identical mortgages for each property, a thirty-year adjustable-rate mortgage for $200,000.

However, the purchaser decides to use each of the properties differently. One property is going to be his home, where he and his newlywed bride will live out their days, surrounded by their 2.5 children and a lifetime of memories (they hope). As his family grows, he desires to build an extension to his home, so he takes out a second mortgage for $50,000. The second property will be rented out to tenants. His mother-in-law will live, rent-free, in the third home, while the fourth home, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, will be used as a vacation home for his family. Lastly, the fifth property will be used as his office.

Hard times ensue. His wife’s last pregnancy was a difficult one, and her hospitalization lasted longer than normal. Moreover, she had to take longer maternity leave than before, so the family income went down significantly. Not surprisingly, her HMO didn’t cover much of the costs, so he had to max out their credit cards to pay for her hospitalization. To make matters worse, his largest client went to a competitor, and now his business in drowning. He falls behind on each of the mortgages, and a foreclosure date is set. The value of each of his properties falls 40% in two years, leaving him unable to use his investments’ equity to cover his bills. Finally, after trying to scramble, scrimp, save and borrow for a year or so, he has to bite the bullet, and see a bankruptcy attorney.

After reviewing his assets and debts, his attorney sees a potential way out for his new client. In Chapter 13, a debtor may reorganize his position by repaying certain debts over a period of time. The procedure is relatively simple and quick, provided he is able to restructure his secured debts (ie., his mortgage) in such a way that he can repay the amount he has fallen behind. He is confident that his business will recover; he just needs a little breathing space. To make it work, however, he will have to seek a complete discharge of his unsecured debt, such as his credit card bills.

The reason why bankruptcy courts treat secured debt differently from unsecured debt is obvious. A secured creditor gets a lien on the property purchased by the consumer so as to make a loan in which only a small percentage of the overall principal is advanced by the borrower viable; if the borrower defaults, the lender gets the physical asset, which it can resell and thereby recoup its losses. In bankruptcy, the lender’s security interest in the physical property is protected, while anything above the value of the actual property (ie., the unsecured portion of the debt) is discharged, along with the other unsecured debts. In short, it is the free market’s way of ensuring that both the borrower and lender bear an equivalent risk. Bankruptcy lawyers call it a “cramdown.”

When the real estate market is stable, lenders rarely have anything to complain about. Since the value of property has historically gone up, the amount of the loan is usually at or below the appraised value of the property, so even if the borrower defaults, the lender doesn’t lose anything on his investment. Bankruptcy courts have traditionally honored the free market tradition of bifurcating claims from lenders into secured and unsecured portions, and explicitly give debtors the right to modify said claims in the context of reorganization of debts in Chapters 11 and 13, with one exception.

For our friend, his attorney proposes that he bifurcate the secured claims on his real properties. Concerning the property that he lets his mother-in-law live rent-free, the property his business operates out of, the property he rents out, and the property where his family summers every year, he can propose a plan in which he will repay the loans at the secured level, based upon an appraisal for each property. He keeps each of the properties he wants to keep, so long as he repays the secured portion over a five-year period. The one property he cannot do that for, and for which he will still owe the entire amount of the mortgage, secured and unsecured alike, is the property he lives at, his “principal residence.”

But even that’s not entirely true. Remember when he obtained a second mortgage on the property a few years before things went south for his family. He can get rid of that debt easily enough, simply by showing that the appraised value of the home is less than what he owes on the first mortgage, making the second completely unsecured. Many courts permit the vanquishing of such a debt to be accomplished with no more than a motion to the court, seeking declaratory relief that the value of the property makes the second lien totally unsecured. It’s only the first mortgage that receives privileged status in the bankruptcy court.

It is hard to justify giving certain loans special treatment in our courts. In the case of our friend, the lenders had no idea which property he was going to declare, on the eve of bankruptcy, was his “principal residence.” They simply loaned him the money, making what were presumably sound judgments based on his credit history, his ability to repay, the long-term predictability of the value of the properties, and other factors. In fact, had he and his family simply moved in with his mother-in-law’s estranged husband, they could cramdown all five properties under the existing Bankruptcy Code. Such are the advantages of property ownership and wealth in this society.

But of course, most people aren’t able to purchase five properties. For the ordinary Joe Schmoe, it’s hard enough to come up with one payment, much less five or six. Unless he is willing and able to move out of his home on the eve of bankruptcy, thereby allowing him to claim that his “principal residence” is somewhere other than the property he’s paying a mortgage on, he, and he alone out of all real estate purchasers, must repay the entire mortgage in bankruptcy, thereby defeating the purpose of “reorganization.”

February 15, 2009

Twenty-Five Days That Shook the World: While much of the Beltway focus was on trivia about his Cabinet nominees and "conventional wisdom" about government spending which was stale during the first Reagan term, our new President was busy remaking the country. Frank Rich observes:
For (David) Axelrod, the moral is “not just that Washington is too insular but that the American people are a lot smarter than people in Washington think.”

Here’s a third moral: Overdosing on this culture can be fatal. Because Republicans are isolated in that parallel universe and believe all the noise in its echo chamber, they are now as out of touch with reality as the “inevitable” Clinton campaign was before it got clobbered in Iowa. The G.O.P. doesn’t recognize that it emerged from the stimulus battle even worse off than when it started. That obliviousness gives the president the opening to win more ambitious policy victories than last week’s. Having checked the box on attempted bipartisanship, Obama can now move in for the kill.

(snip)

The stimulus opponents, egged on by all the media murmurings about Obama “losing control,” also thought they had a sure thing. Their TV advantage added to their complacency. As the liberal blog ThinkProgress reported, G.O.P. members of Congress
wildly outnumbered Democrats as guests on all cable news networks, not just Fox News, in the three days of intense debate about the House stimulus bill. They started pounding in their slogans relentlessly. The bill was not a stimulus package but an orgy of pork spending. The ensuing deficit would amount to “generational theft.” F.D.R.’s New Deal had been an abject failure.

This barrage did shave a few points off the stimulus’s popularity in polls, but its approval rating still remained above 50 percent in all (
Gallup, CNN, Pew, CBS) but one of them (Rasmussen, the sole poll the G.O.P. cites). Perhaps the stimulus held its own because the public, in defiance of Washington’s condescending assumption, was smart enough to figure out that the government can’t create jobs without spending and that Bush-era Republicans have no moral authority to lecture about deficits. Some Americans may even have ancestors saved from penury by the New Deal.

In any event, the final score was unambiguous. The stimulus package arrived with the price tag and on roughly the schedule Obama had set for it. The president’s job approval percentage now ranges from the mid 60s (
Gallup, Pew) to mid 70s (CNN) — not bad for a guy who won the presidency with 52.9 percent of the vote. While 48 percent of Americans told CBS, Gallup and Pew that they approve of Congressional Democrats, only 31 (Gallup), 32 (CBS) and 34 (Pew) percent could say the same of their G.O.P. counterparts.
The Rasmussen poll, incidentally, samples what it determines are "likely voters," ephemera which could hardly be less relevant some twenty-one months until the next election. If the GOP continues to rely on a coalition of fanatical Christianists and New Deal Denialists, its journey into the political wilderness may well be a long one.

February 13, 2009

The Mortgage Industry Responds: Prof. Todd Zywicki, the legal craftsman behind the 2005 BARF Act, reviews the consequences resulting from his handiwork, and punts:
The nation faces a foreclosure crisis of historic proportions, and there is an understandable desire on the part of the federal government to "do something" to help. House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers's bill, which is moving swiftly through Congress (and companion legislation introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin) would allow bankruptcy judges to modify home mortgages by reducing both the interest rate and principal amount on the loan. This would be a profound mistake.
Since the other alternatives would be to do nothing, let the "Free Market" do its thing, and allow hundreds of thousands of people to lose their homes, or for Congress to intervene in some other way, like, say, a foreclosure freeze, thereby removing any incentive to repay a mortgage, I think the answer is simple. Give homeowners the same rights as owners of commercial property, apartments, and vacation homes, and pass the strip-down bill.

January 29, 2009

100-0: As expected, the a-hole coach who elected to have his players rainbow treys in the fourth quarter of a 100-nothing blowout over a school for handicapped girls was canned this week. Blow-outs and routs are a part of sports, and where there is often a large discrepancy in talent, such as youth and high school competition, they are inevitable. When I played AYSO back in the day, one of the teams I played for, "The Rookies," shook up Balboa Park in Encino by losing 0ne week, 12-1, only to come back the next week and win, 12-0. But when the entire strategy of the winning team is designed not to optimize victory, but to humiliate a helpless opponent, that's really an issue of character.

January 19, 2009

Miracle of the Loaves? A video to make even an unreconstructed Obama fan like myself cringe, featuring a "journalist" and a former Sport Illustrated swimsuit model. For crissakes, ladies, he's a pol who came along at the right time, not the freaking Messiah. After all is said and done, we're still going to be in a recession tomorrow night, no matter how spectacular Arianna's or Oprah's parties are.

January 09, 2009

Hathaway's Norbit: The critics rave:
"The most lamentable thing about the dismal Bride Wars is the total absence of fatalities."
Actually, I blame Kate Hudson for this debacle. No other actress this side of Zooey Deschanel has a worse track record in consistently appearing in turkeys than the former step-daughter of TV's Shirley.

January 03, 2009

Franken wins ?!? It would appear so, although the incumbent can probably keep him out of the Senate for awhile. Although Air America has had a reputation for being something of a dud, I think it's safe to say that there is no way Franken could have become a viable Senate candidate without the exposure his morning radio show gave him, and Rachel Maddow has been able to parley her exposure on AA to a rather successful prime time gig at MSNBC. I guess sometimes it's not the quantity of the audience that matters, but the quality.