Monday, August 31, 2015

They took Frankie Valli's advice

Walk like a man, he said.

Two robbers who stole over £50,000 worth of cash [and] jewellery while dressed in burkas were foiled when passers-by realised they walked like men.
And then the cops tackled them, even though the bobbies, being English, were unarmed and the robbers had shown a firearm. So, I am often asked when I write about guns, do I think American police need to be armed?

And my answer is, no, not routinely in a society governed by sane laws. But we aren't there yet.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Lord, keep Trump and Walker safe, somehow

I see that Donald Trump wants to build a wall beteween us and Mexico, and Scott Walker wants to build one between us and Canada.

And I thought the GOP of was the party of small government.

RtO suggests two smaller walls, on wheels, one surrounding Trump and one surrounding Walker. It would save lots of money and also we wouldn't have to look at those two idiots again.

Friday, August 28, 2015

A capsule history of Reaganomics

In a comment on Paul Krugman's weekly column, a reader named "Reality Based" from "Flyover Country" says what RtO has been trying to say since 2008, but better:

We now have thirty five years of financial/economic history that should have destroyed forever the Great Lie that Voodoo economics creates anything but deficit bubbles, which are then used to attack and destroy social programs for the poor and middle class. Reagan tripled federal deficits in order to cut taxes in half for the wealthy, while weaponry expenditures exploded. Bush One left office with historic deficits and a sinking economy, which Bill Clinton remedied by returning to progressive taxation on high incomes. Every Republican in Congress said it would destroy the economy, and instead we had 20 million new jobs and zero deficits by 2000. Republicans responded with smears and impeachment. Bush2 insisted upon a return to Voodoo Economics combined with huge upper end tax cuts and two wars, which along with a financial de-regulation frenzy re-created the same enormous deficits, which were then used to try and destroy Social Security. This idiocy nearly brought down the world financial system. Obama's sane economic advisers restored job growth and eliminated most of the deficits, but sixteen Republicans are all ready to return to the same policies that have been failing for a third of a century.

The Republican Party exists to enrich the wealthy, and empower a tiny elite. It has been concentrating income and wealth, by redistributing it upwards for thirty five years. This, of course, is only possible with a politics based totally on deceit, which is the whole point.

I'd amend that to "relatively sane economic policies."  Obama and the Democrats still haven't done anything about restoring a modern version of Glass-Steagall so that the investment crooks cannot take the savings banks down along with their bucket shop operations.

Also, Reagan did not start the policy of organizing government for the benefit of the rich: that was Alexander Hamilton and his move to confiscate the value of the soldier bonuses from the heroes of the Revolution and transfer it to his cronies.

But all in all, an excellent summary.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Changing faces of the candidate

Until 1960, everyone who was elected president or was taken seriously as a candidate was a white, Protestant man whose family had been long settled in America, with the sole exception of Al Smith. Then from 1964 to 2008, the same.

It is remarkable how different the lineup is in 2015. Taking all 17 declared Republicans and the four declared or likely Democrats as “serious,” we find:

Except for Smith and Obama, all previous serious candidates had parents, grandparents and, usually great grandparents, who were born in the United States. Today, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal all had foreign parents; and two candidates, Donald Trump and Jeb Bush, have or had foreign wives.

For the first time, women are serious candidates, Carly Fiorina and Hillary Clinton.

Jindal, Cruz, Ben Carson and Rubio are, aside from Obama, the first candidates who are not vanilla white.

Bernie Sanders is the first Jew to become a serious candidate, and there are several Catholics: Martin O’Malley, Rubio, Joe Biden. Many evangelical Protestants consider that Mormons are not Protestants (or even Christians), so the two Romneys would, for them, be exceptions to the “all Protestant” characteristic, and so, for them, is Carson, a Seventh-day Adventist.

None of these characteristics has anything to do with being qualified to do the job, but in the past they had everything to do with being taken seriously.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Book Review 352: Star Island

STAR ISLAND, by Carl Hiaasen. 354 pages. Grand Central paperback, $14.99

It isn’t possible to write a satirical novel about Florida, even for a writer as talented and uninhibited as Carl Hiaasen. Satire has to go over the top, and how can you top this actual Florida event (as reported in the Orlando Sentinel):

“Crystal Metheny was arrested May 5 on a charge of shooting an offensive missile into a vehicle, according to public records from the Polk County Sheriff's Office. She was released the following day after posting $5,000 bond.”

(It does not appear she was ever prosecuted, though. Perhaps after checking the statutes, the authorities learned it is not against the law to shoot offensive —or even friendly — missiles into vehicles in Florida. I wouldn’t be surprised.)

Still, props to Hiaasen for trying. “Star Island” is his eleventh attempt. He probably fried his brain doing the research, which involved watching TMZ, Keeping Up with the Kardashians and reading People and the like non-stop for some length of time.

“Star Island” is like one of Ed McBain’s 84th Precinct novels in that it alternates between two unrelated plots.

The main one revolves around Cherry Pye, a drug and alcohol addled pop star being groomed by a pack of thoroughly despicable handlers for a last-chance comeback. Since Cherry is usually wasted, they hire Ann DeLusia, a hopeful actress, to stand in for her.

The lesser plot concerns Clinton Tyree, a sometime governor of Florida who quit in midterm and lives in a swamp, emerging occasionally to take revenge on developers and similar scum ravaging the peninsula. Here Hiaasen comes as close as he gets to creating an over-the-top character. Everybody knows there has never been an environmentalist governor of Florida.

The plots link up when both Tyree (called Skink) and Bang Abbott,  a paparazzo obsessed with taking Marilyn- Monroe-style pictures of Cherry, kidnap Ann. Much mayhem and backstabbing ensues, and the plotting is clever.

What is missing, and notably missing from a novel supposedly about the environment, is any description of Florida. Hiaasen is not much of a descriptive writer, preferring to move his plots ahead by action, character and references to pop culture. He does lavish some adjectives on the two manly and self-integrated characters, Skink and a bodyguard named Chemo.

Readers don’t get much of a feel for the ravaged beauty of either Florida or Cherry/Ann.

In compensation, they do get to enjoy gruesome ends for some (but nowhere near all) of the grifting con artists who infest the book.

Since the most fully developed character, Abbott, is a former newspaperman, I had constantly in mind the greatest satire of a newspaperman caught in sordid circumstances, Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop.” “Scoop” comes to a gruesome finish. “Star Island” ends with half of dozen even more gruesome ones.



Friday, August 21, 2015

Is the stock market crashing?

Maybe.

In my 40-odd years of business reporting, all the 500-point daily drops in the Dow-Jones Industrial Average signaled crash. True, those were from lower levels to begin with, so that the percentage fall was bigger.

Still, 500 points is impressive.

All the more so when there appears to be no particular driver. Reports cite a slowdown -- not even a reversal -- in the growth rate in China. But we have understood -- RtO has, anyway -- for years that China's numbers were both partly imaginary and wholly based on an unstable economic organization.

If the market is supposed to be this magic place where all information is subsumed, masticated, digested and processed, way is the market reacting to China's well-known difficulties only now?

Curious. Maybe market theory is radically incorrect at a fundametal level. RtO has always said so.

Or maybe it's just that historically bull markets seldom run longer than 6 years.  But that doesn't make market theory look good, either.

If you listen to Republicans, the key ingredient in business is not investment, competence or innovation but something called "business confidence." So what changed between last Friday and this Friday to dampen business confidence?

Answers must refer to changes in objective conditions. Everything else is hand-waving.



Book Review 351: My Lobotomy

MY LOBOTOMY, by Howard Dully and Charles Fleming. 286 pages, illustrated. Three Rivers paperback, $13.95

I have never known anyone who had had a lobotomy, but in the 1960s a friend told me about his aunt who had had one. She was always happy, he said, but had no memory.

That helps explain why we don’t have memoirs by people who had their prefrontal cortices cut off from the remainder of their brains. That, and the fact that up to a third of people died after the operation.

So Howard Dully’s “My Lobotomy” is a precious document. But an outlier in many respects.

First, he apparently had nothing organically wrong with him. Some people who were lobotomized were sick.

For example, while reading “My Lobotomy” I came across the case of Sherwin Nuland, a surgeon at Yale Medical School who in middle age was so affected by depression that he could not work. It is a measure of how sick he was that his colleagues supported giving him a lobotomy even though they recognized that it would mean he would never do surgery again.

And this was as late as 1973. As it happened, he avoided lobotomy and was cured with massive electroshocks, so that he enjoyed a long further career as a surgeon and teacher. (You can find his story in a TED talk on Youtube.)  

Second, Dully was young, just 12. Lobotomies on children were not uncommon but were rarer. As Dully learned by offering his brain up for MRI imaging, apparently his young brain was unformed enough that as he grew older it developed alternate structures so that no one would tell from his behavior that he had had his brain “scrambled like an eggbeater.”

Third, and perhaps of no particular significance to his story, he was a boy. Doctors overwhelmingly did their lobotomies on women.

Howard Dully came from a family that was a mess. Lots of drunks and head cases, plus humdrum diseases like cancer, which killed his mother when he was five. Hardly any members of the extended family seem to have had any idea how to be parents, even the ones with little or no mental disease.

Bring in a hateful stepmother and Dr. Walter Freeman, the Johnny Appleseed of American lobotomy — and a product of another family where no one seemed to know how to rise children — and you had a formula for disaster. Dully believes his stepmother hoped Freeman would kill him, or at least turn him into a vegetable.

Either way would get him out of the house. As it turned out, the observable effects of the operation were small, but Dully was kicked out anyway.

He was soon involved in petty crime — by his own account, he seems to have been a bit of a con artist — and so was labeled troublemaker. That was nearly as good, from stepmom Lou’s point of view, as vegetable.

Once labeled, it is difficult to get people to look with clear sight at your behavior, and much of the memoir is devoted to Dully’s worries about his own status. If I’m not really bad, he thought, why am I being treated the way I am? So I must be bad.

With the love of a good woman — though a cocaine addict; few people in Dully’s world were outstanding citizens — he eventually learned how to function in society. Nobody had ever tried to teach him that, he says in one of the rare bitter passages.

His tone is remarkably sweet though never saccharine. Too much bad stuff happened to allow for that.