Sunday, September 30, 2012

Rightwing nuts 14, leftwing nuts 0

Are rightwing nuts more gullible than leftwing nuts? Or, alternatively, are they about equally foolish, but are there lot more of the rightwing kind?

Let's ask Mr. Snopes., the urban legend fact-checking service, has a "Hot 25" list of the biggest current urban legends, as judged by "frequency of access, user searches, reader e-mail, and media coverage."

Of today's Hot 25, 5 were judged to be true or partly true, so let's set them aside on the grounds that spreading true stories should not be criticized. (Although one of the 5 is a nasty and fact-free rant against President Obama, and this is relevant in light of the other findings. However, Snopes merely reported whether the rant was being properly attributed by the Internet noise machine to the correct African-American publicist and found that it was.)

Of the remaining 20, Snopes found six to be false or mostly false, but these do not have any particular political tendency.

That leaves 14 which are absolutely false (most of them) or largely false and which do have an obvious political tendency. All 14 push rightwing, mostly anti-Obama themes, although one goes back in Mr. Snopes' file to 1996 and is, in my recollection, even older. 

That's the one that atheists are going to get the FCC to ban religious broadcasts. With religious broadcasters outnumbering atheist broadcasters by about 9,000 to 0, the persistence of this one seems to prove that you cannot make up a hoax so silly that the people who worship god by watching TV won't believe it.

While there are certainly leftwing nuts, not one cracked the Hot 25.

Book Review 256: The Rose's Kiss

THE ROSE'S KISS: A Natural History of Flowers, by Peter Bernhardt. 267 pages, illustrated. Chicago paperback

In this engaging and slightly didactic collection of essays, Peter Bernhardt laments that American higher education seems to have dropped botany from the menu of things a broadly informed person might want to know about.

A hundred years ago, field botany, he says, was a regular feature of high school curriculums, at a level that would be impressive for an upper level collegiate course today. Of course, 100 years, a tenth of boys and girls went to high school, so the proportion of Americans who had formal training botany was not high.

However, the proportion who knew a lot about flowers was high. Country people learn a great deal (not all of it accurate) about plants.

One reason, I suspect, that plant-lore is less attractive to today's students (aside from the items Bernhardt cites, like a concentration on “useful” or instrumental courses) is that city folk – 98% – don't see much plant life. Even in suburbs, the selection of plants is restricted to horticultural favorites, mostly; and (as Bernhardt notes in one of the essays in his book “Natural Affairs”) even city kids who go to botanical exhibits are seldom exposed to natural communities of plants – cactuses from all continents are mixed up together in one place, orchids in another.

The country kid, if at all observant, sees the plants interacting through the seasons.

In “The Rose's Kiss,” Bernhardt, in his graceful fashion, surveys the many ways flowers attract pollinators, or, in some cases, rely on wind; and he explains the consequences for them – and us – of the strategies they choose.

Humans eat mostly grass seeds, and grasses reproduce by wind-carried pollen (although a small fraction of successful gametes are helped by animal pollinators).

Knowing something about pollination can be useful in daily life, even if you are not a farmer or gardener.

For example, pollen is very sensitive to moisture. When wetted, the grains swell, burst and lose their ability to inseminate female sex organs. For this reason, the effective range of wind pollination is extremely short, a matter of a few score yards.

Many millions of hours of fretting about GMO plants would be saved for more useful fretting if the anti-GMO crowd understood this characteristic of flowering.

Likewise, habitues of natural food stores might like to know about bee pollen sold as an energy food. Bernhardt writes, “That may be so, but I've dissected pollen pellets, and I know they'll also give you bee lice and leg hairs.”

Understanding what bees do is remarkably recent. Less than 200 years ago, botanists thought bees were mere nectar thieves. Now, we understand that “bees are a flower's winged penis.”

Here we also learn why there are very few true white flowers – in ultraviolet light, which pollinators can see even if we cannot, the white parts have guide markings to lure insects (or birds, bats or rodents) to the sex chamber.

In a too brief final chapter, Bernhardt summarizes our knowledge of the evolution of flowers. Only since the 1980s have many relevant fossils been discovered. They tend to be small, even microscopic.

There are hints that the first flowers showed up even earlier than 225 million years ago, when the evidence starts firming up. Seeds go back at least 360 million years, but they were “naked,” lacking the organs (petals, sepals etc.) that make flowers interesting.

Most generalities about flowers have an exception somewhere. “Given enough time, Nature will humiliate a botanist,” Bernhardt writes.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Another Hofstadter fan

A week ago, in a review of "America at 1750," I stated the obvious, that in this era of revived McCarthyism, it would be a good thing to re-read Richard Hofstadter, the popular historian of American liberty. Had I waited a week, I could have restated the obvious, as is my practice, because Michael Dirda, the Washington Post book editor, has come to a similar conclusion.

Dirda is a lot windier about it than I was, but his piece at Barnes & might be a good starting point for anyone interested in Hofstadter but too busy to read a whole book.

Nut graf:

While he doesn't seek to explain all of American history as the conflict between "eggheads and fatheads" or between populist democrats and cultural elites (though it can sometimes sound that way), he does stress the pervasive influence on our culture of politically conservative evangelicals and the harm done to our children by a system of education that regularly favors personal development over intellectual challenge. As it happens, some recent books have been highlighting character and grit, rather than intelligence and knowledge, as the keys to success in life. But that argument is hardly new. In examining the self-help literature of the nineteenth century, Hofstadter underscores their recurrent focus on the supreme importance of willpower and moral fortitude, as well as their suspicion of genius, which was regarded as "vain and frivolous."
Since I read "Anti-intellectualism in American Life" 40 years ago, I have often wondered whence it arose. Is there a simpler explanation that the one Hofstadter mined out of the history of (dumb) ideas? I believe there is.

While I more or less go along with all that Hofstadter thinks about it, I have a more direct, more universal and -- let's be frank -- more silly explanation.

Anti-intellectualism will be a propensity of any popular, democratizing and leveling social system, because of the "I'm just as good a man as he is" mindset. This will, of course, be multiplied in a Protestant milieu, but I think it works everywhere.

Most people are unwilling to admit they are not as smart as the average bear. As young teenagers, they may also think they are sharp enough to play second-base for the Yankees or be a fashion model, but 10 years later they are forced to acknowledge that they really aren't.

Curve balls and mirrors are reality checks.

But there is not such a clearcut reality check about intelligence (or wisdom, if the two are not the same). I do not believe Americans disdain intelligence so much as they disdain pointy-headed intellectuals who seem to claim they have more of it than they do.

English has no word for intelligentsia; we imported it from Russia, but other places (the Koran Belt, especially) where the masses are illiterate and oppressed also have it. In those places, people have  a strong sense that being educated has a big effect on one's status, wealth, power and freedom. In places where everybody reads, there is no sharply-defined intelligent class; but there may be a lively sense that people who have more status, wealth, power and freedom have education credentials greater than the lowly, poor, feeble and constrained.

No wonder they resent it.   

Book Review 255: A Dark History: The Popes

A DARK HISTORY: THE POPES: Vice, Murder and Corruption in the Vatican, by Brenda Ralph Lewis. 256 pages, illustrated. Metro.

A lavishly illustrated coffee table book about the crimes of popes is one of publishing's odder byways. Brenda Lewis, a hack if ever there was one, did this for a British publisher, and in Britain there are still a lot of fanatical anti-Catholics, so perhaps that explains it.

What audience American republisher Metro was aiming for is more difficult to guess.

Apparently British publisher Amber has a series of “Dark Histories,” since Lewis has also done “Kings and Queens.”

This volume is a fairly dark incident in the history of publishing. There is plenty of crime in the Vatican to write about, but Lewis manages to both overstate and understate it.

There are chapters on the violence in Rome in the 9th and 10th centuries, on the centuries-long witchhunts, on the Borgias, on the persecution of Galileo, on the antimodernism of the 19th century Vatican and on the relationship of the Vatican to Naziism in the 20th century.

Nothing about the Vatican's war on Jews.

In the context of religion, the Borgias don't belong. Unlike the 9th-century or 19th-century popes, the Borgias never presented their misdeeds as expressions of the morality of Christian teaching.

There is also not a word about the murder, corruption and sexual violence promoted by the Vatican in present days.

It is perhaps not necessary to state that a coffee-table book about Vatican crimes is superficial, but there is a jarring change of tone when Lewis comes to Eugenio Pacelli, Pius XII, and the Vatican's relations to the greatest political issues of the 20th century.

After smearing pope after pope (deservedly), she switches gears and whitewashes Pacelli's fellow-traveling with fascism.

She is clumsy about this. Not a word about Falangism and the Vatican's alliance with German and Italian fascism in Spain.

Just a list of all the things Pacelli supposedly did for the Jews. This list is more or less phony, but as with Spain, it is what Lewis leaves out that makes the book so smarmy.

The pope had no army, so Pacelli's options were limited by that. It can be, and has been, argued endlessly what his motives were, and, depending upon what they were, whether his strategy was either worthy or effective. (Well, it certainly was not effective., so that part of the argument is largely bogus.)

But there was a place in Europe where the pope did, in effect, have an army, where his writ ran, where he could have saved Jews with a quiet word: Croatia.

He didn't.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Being 'unbanked'

Congress, in its wisdom, has tasked the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to determine which Americans are “unbanked” and “underbanked,” so that banks can better reach out and provide services to them. You would think, since 2008, that it would be more profitable to worry about serving the customers banks already have –just today, Bank of America agreed to pay a penalty of nearly $2,500,000,000 for misbehavior. But the rule was passed in 2005, when banks had not yet had their behavior exposed so much as they have lately.
The bankless are not entirely excluded from financial services (AFS, alternative financial services in wonkspeak). From the FDIC 2011 report:
AFS transaction products (i.e., non-bank money orders,
non-bank check cashing, and non-bank remittances) are
considerably more widely used than AFS credit products
(i.e., payday loans, pawn shops, rent-to-own stores, and
refund anticipation loans). In the last year, 23.3 percent of
households used transaction AFS and 6.0 percent used
AFS credit product.
That’s percentages of all households, not just un- and underbanked.
As the report notes, those numbers understate the number of the bankless, because the survey was by household. If anyone in the household had a bank account, the whole family was considered “banked.” It is easy to see who in multigenerational households, this results in an overcount.
No surprise, the segments of the population with less money, less reliable employment and less assets are less banked:
All households                          8.2% unbanked,  20.1% underbanked
Blacks                                         21.4% unbanked, 33.9 % underbanked
Foreign-born non-citizens    22.2% unbanked, 28.9% underbanked
Households experiencing
unemployment                       22.5% unbanked, 28.0% underbanked
The survey found that nearly 1 American in 4 did not have as much as $100 saved to deal with an emergency.
What the survey does not say, but which bankers know, is that of people who are banked, half account fo 1 50% of profits, and the other half produce losses. You can see why banks will be unenthusiastic about bulking up that second category with the heretofore unbanked.
Pawnshops, on the other hand, thrive on small deals. The National Pawnbrokers Association says that the average pawn loan is about $80.

Praying and fasting for a Romney win

According to reports (which I cannot confirm are true), Mormons are praying and fasting for a Romney victory.  

Seems somewhat dangerous to me, theologically if not politically. What if he loses?

If you don't fast and pray and he loses, you can blame him, or Roger Ailes or, well, somebody. But if you fast and pray and he loses, do you have to blame god?

Eliminate the capital gains tax!

No, not the way you think. Restating the Obvious has not suddenly become a mouthpiece for the socially irresponsible rich.

I mean, eliminate the concept of the capital gain. Tax all income as ordinary income.

One result of that, I bet, would be a more serious attempt to simplify the Tax Code on income. If the heavy hitters who have the ear of congresspersons actually had to pay income tax -- instead of just casting slurs on the plebes who do -- then we'd likely see some action.

Joe Nocera deftly deconstructs the argument for a lower tax on capital gains in the New York Times.

Nut grafs:

In 2009, according to recent Congressional testimony by Leonard E. Burman, a professor at Syracuse University, the 400 highest-income taxpayers reaped an astounding 16 percent of all capital gains.
All of which would be justifiable if the country got some benefit in return. On “60 Minutes” Sunday night, when Romney was asked about the justification for his low tax rate, he said what most conservatives say, that a low capital gains rate is “the right way to encourage economic growth, to get people to invest, to start businesses, to put people to work.”
This is also what Forbes means when it links its list to “the American dream.” Except that there is no evidence that it’s true. In 1986, when Ronald Reagan was president, the differential between capital gains and ordinary income was eliminated — and the economy soared. The capital gains rate was higher during the Bill Clinton years than in the George W. Bush years, yet the economy did better under Clinton than under Bush.
In the printed copy of his Congressional testimony, Burman has a chart that plots the ups and downs of the economy since the 1950s with changes in the capital gains rate. There is no correlation between the two. The idea that a lower capital gains rate spurs economic growth is one of the enduring myths of conservative thought.
The American dream exists not because of the capital gains differential but in spite of it. It is the tax break that most glaringly exists to benefit the wealthy.

And over at Columbia Journalism Review, Ryan Chittum has a note in the same vein, with lots of references.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Book Review 254: Hawaiian Tales

HAWAIIAN TALES, by Allan Beekman. 112 pages. Harlo

Few, if any, writers who set out to pen short stories about Hawaii fail to write one placed in Dec. 7, 1941.

Allan Beekman's offering, “No Place beneath the Rising Sun,” is more interesting than most. It is set in a Japanese language school, and has several main characters: the teachers, including an Imperial Army pilot who had fought in China; and two small children, twins.

It includes a scene of a mob shaking fists and howling for blood at the school as the attack on Pearl Harbor continues. That is not an incident I have seen reported anywhere, but the background of Beekman's little volume of “Hawaiian Tales” indicates it is meant to be authentic.

His AJA wife, Take, was teaching at a Japanese language school on Dec. 7, after which she lost her job. In his introduction, Allan Beekman thanks Take Beekman for her help with that story.

Hawaiian Tales” was published in 1970, assembling a dozen stories that Beekman had published in periodicals (some obscure) earlier. The stories are set in the 1910-1950 period and reflect, except for one or two, the experience of the Japanese immigrants.

The writing is sometimes stiff – my favorite line is a description of the “dark, green oblanceolate leaves” of a mock orange – and sometimes didactic, and Beekman does not manage to give any real feel for being in Honolulu.

Yet the stories themselves are a cut above the usual run of local color stories, especially ones produced by haole immigrants. Beekman has a deft touch for a ghost story; there are two.

And after long residence in the islands, with a local wife, Beekman avoids the clunkers that usually creep into story collections, even sometimes those written by the born-and-raiseds.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Book Review 253: America at 1750

AMERICA AT 1750: A Social Portrait, by Richard Hofstadter. 293 pages. Knopf.

This is a good time to read (or re-read) the histories of Richard Hofstadter, who explained the background of McCarthyism. McCarthyism is back, big time. The foreground is different. The background is the same.

Hofstadter's writing career, 1944-1970, was almost exactly congruent with the first McCarthyism, and his gracefully written books were bestsellers among lovers of American liberty.

The titles of the best-known reveal his thrust: “Anti-intellectualism in American Life”: “The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays”; “Social Darwinism in American Thought”; “The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States.”

When he passed the age of 50, Hofstadter projected a massive social history of America, which would require 18 years to write. He died after completing only eight chapters of a scene-setting volume, which were published as “America at 1750” in 1971.

So this little volume is a good place to start before returning to his earlier volumes. It was Hofstadter's opinion that by 1750, peculiarly American attitudes, customs, institutions and morals had formed after six or seven generations away from Europe, and that these were so powerful they still controlled much that we did two centuries later.

He was certainly a believer in American exceptionalism, but unlike the antidemocratic, antiliberal ranters about American exceptionalism today, he did not think that everything America did and stood for was wise or benevolent; nor that anyone who dared to criticize our failings was a less than 100 percent American.

The chapter headings reveal that. After an opening review of demographics, his first three substantive chapters are on forced labor, white and black; and the capitalist slave trade.

Only after reminding us that America was a deeply flawed place does he begin writing about its attractive aspects in “The Middle Class World.”

One aspect of American exceptionalism is that it was history's first majority middle class community.

Hofstadter died too soon to remonstrate against the destruction of the middle class in favor of finance capitalism, but he was aware of the threat.

His final three chapters are about religion, particularly the Great Awakening in the 1740s.

Until then, Americans were unchurched, in the main, although there were established churches in many colonies that taxed everybody.

But believers and unbelievers who disdained to pay for someone else's church were free to move, and did.

Americans evolved a wholly secular idea of government, not because they were irreligious (which they weren't even if unchurched) but because no sect (after the early days in New England) could command the adherence of a large enough majority to persecute the rest. Thus, the idea of toleration, which was, for most, limited to toleration of Protestants.

But it was a good start.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Democrats are dull dogs

So, OK, I was wrong again, for about the fourth time this campaign season. It's been the most entertaining of my lifetime, but I keep saying the good times cannot keep rolling on. So, so wrong, as least as regards the GOP.

But where are the funny Democratic videos? All we get are earnest explanations about why it would be good to allow youngish illegal aliens to go to school or claims to have saved the auto industry.

I did think that buttoned-down and buttoned-up Mitt Romney would suck all the fun out of the party after getting the formal nomination. Wrong again.

The humor-deprived (the only deprivation he's ever suffered, aside from coffee) Romney has had help, of course. Who can forget:

William Akin's "legitimate rape" speech, although loyal Mrs. Akin's defense of her hubby comparing objections by even (some) Republicans to be equivalent to "rape" topped that. Too bad we don't have videotape of the Akins talking about rape over the morning coffee. That would be a caution.

Paul Ryan's claim to be a sub-three hour marathon runner. Turns out he did ONE -- count 'em, 1 -- marathon, but he didn't run it. His time of over four hours was closer to a fast walk.

For chutzpah, nothing tops Sarah Palin's rant against someone at the Democratic convention who displayed a "Once you go black, you never go back" sign. Pretty tacky sign, to be sure, but considering that Palin did marry a white guy after ballin' Glen Rice, it took nerve for her to call it out. (Follow link and read very funny comment, which the moderator appears not to have understood.)

Almost anything by Texas congressman Louie Gohmert, for example his weird take on the Aurora shootings.

Funnier than all of these, though, is Romney's claim about the "47%" that he could have expressed himself "more elegantly." Still waiting for that.

Pure comedy gold.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are the lame joke party. All they have to offer is the first lady pressing kids to eat their veggies.

My fellow, Muricans, I  ask you, can we stand four more years of an administration incapable of generating a funny viral Youtube video?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Calvary Chapel and the Republicans

A week ago, in the perhaps unlikely context of a review of "In-N-Out Burger," I took a swipe at Calvary Chapel for being bigoted. It deserved it, as anyone who listens to its radio ministry (as I do) will agree.

Finding a religious bigot is hardly news, but Calvary Chapel deserves more than a casual swipe. It's worth thinking about in terms of the presidential election.

The Republicans have made a big push for the evangelical vote, although it is the Democratic candidate who professes an evangelical faith. Evangelical Christian faith. The adjective is important.

I grew up surrounded by evangelicals, and it has always been my opinion that getting them out to vote is a mug's game. While they easily get het up about, say, abortion or school prayer, getting them out to vote is not so easy. My opionion is that when you are fed a steady diet of worry about success in the next world, political success in this one is always going to be a lower priority.

I once put this to the pastor at one of Maui's oldest evangelical churches, and he said, "Of course." Another example: I went to a lecture by the young-earth creationist and diluvialist Henry Morris sponsored by an evangelical congregation. (This was when I was a newspaper reporter; not many reporters attended as many evangelical whoop-fests as I did.) At the end of the night, the crowd was in a sweat of indignation against Darwin. The pastor asked, "What are you going to do about it?" Aside from pulling their children out of public school, the answer was, nothing.

Thus, the relative electoral failure of Moral Majority and other evangelical political movements, at least as far as getting candidates elected. You may have seen a Chuck Norris appeal on Youtube in which he claims that 2 of 3 evangelicals didn't vote in 2008. If half of those absentees come out this time, Obama loses in a landslide.


When the Republicans began their policy of evangelical butt-kissing, it appeared that the nominee at the top of the ticket would be a rightwing Christian of standard views: Santorum, Perry, Bachmann or the like.

It is my opinion that the old guard (sometimes called the eastern wing) of the GOP wanted a simple-minded, malleable dope, like Reagan or Eisenhower -- Mitt Romney. I cannot say whether they thought the move toward the evangelical-rightwing-medieval Christian base was something they could not control, or something they thought they could ditch when inconvenient -- the "Etch-A-Sketch" ploy.

In any event, the easterners are not evangelicals and don't think empathetically with evangelicals. Romney is not a compatible pick the the evangelical base.

Calvary Chapel claims to be the fastest-growing evangelical cult in the country. Its radio ministry programs like "To Every Man an Answer" are on hundreds of stations -- I can pick it up on at least four places on the dial on Maui.

They don't like Mormons.

Or Catholics or Seventh-day Adventists, but they are particularly hateful toward Mormons. Send for their free CD if you don't believe me.

So do Calvary Chapel Americans vote for Obama or Romney? Or do they sit this one out?

I say they sit this one out. Again.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Are we having fun yet?

I used to read James Lileks' blog The Bleat regularly but stopped when he started spending all his time talking about what we now (but not then) call social media. Today, idly, I called up his page. He was writing about Candy Corn flavor Oreos.

The mind reels.

I have not noticed Candy Corn Oreos in Hawaii, perhaps it is a Minnesota thing. But I did note "Fun Football-shape Oreos."

As my father used to say, it doesn't take much to amuse some people.

Speaking of which, what is it with the pro- and anti-Apple trolls on the tech blogs? Ditto pro- and anti-Microsoft?

It's as dumb as the pro- and anti-GM, or Ford or Chrysler motorheads. You know, Ford = Fix or Repair Daily, or I'd rather see my sister in a whorehouse than in a Chevy.

And speaking of cars, what's with backing into parking spaces? I'd say close to a third of local drivers do this. But why?

Gov. Colden on Mitt Romney

Cadwallader Colden  was governor of the province of New York and a staunch conservative in the period leading up to the Revolution. A rich man himself, he had decided opinions about having rich men in charge:

Riches are not always acquired by honestest means, nor are they always accompanied by the greatest integrity of mind, with the most knowledge, or with the most generous sentiments and public spirit . . . the middling rank of mankind in all countries and in all ages, have justly obtain'd the character, to be generally the most honest . . . And I am likewise fully persuaded that we may much more safely trust our liberty and property with our neighbors of middling rank than with those of the greatest riches who are thereby tempted to lord it over their neighbors.
 From Carl Bridenbaugh, "Cities in Revolt"

Romney's foreign delusions

Even before his latest gaffe concerning the deaths in Libya, a Guardian poll posed a deep question about one of Romney's favorite themes: That somehow, President Obama has lowered the standing of America overseas.

This is part of his McCarthyite strategy and is demonstrably delusional. While polls always leave some room for argument, some polls leave very little. When, for example,

Only around one in 20 of those surveyed in Britain, France and Germany by YouGov held a positive view of the Republican presidential nominee, 
it would have to be a wholly phony survey to be wrong.

Some of the findings are remarkable. Romney accused Obama of damaging the "special relationship" with Britain. Apparently, somebody has harmed it but it wasn't Obama:

 Forty-seven percent of UK respondents said a Romney victory would make them feel less favourable towards the US, and only 3% would make them feel more favourable.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Book Review 252: In-N-Out Burger

IN-N-OUT BURGER: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-food Chain that Breaks All the Rules, by Stacy Perman.345 pages, illustrated. Collins Business

I used to work with refugees from the San Gabriel Valley who were always raving about In-N-Out burgers and lamenting that they were not sold in Hawaii. So when I found myself next to an In-N-Out in San Diego, I had to try it.

It was a burger, neither the best nor the worst I’ve had. The fries were nowhere near as good as the pre-tallow ban McDonald’s fries (though of course much better than the vegetarian Macfries).

Thus, I idly picked up Stacy Perman’s “In-N-Out Burger” to see if I could understand the enthusiasm. What I got, instead, was a classic Southern California morality play in which innocence, greed, religion, patriotism and money lead to corpses and corruption. It should have been written by Raymond Chandler. Perman makes the least of her material.

The business tale is easily told: Harry and Esther Snyder ride the boom in California by selling carefully prepared hamburgers and emphasizing freshness and convenience to car-bound customers. They become very rich but cannily retain total control of their business in the interest of passing it on to children and grandchildren.

Except for the money, it is a disaster.

Kind people but of political and social leanings that have made Californians the butt of satire for generations, the Snyders refused to hire women.

They subscribed wholly to the Reader’s Digest fantasy of self-made Americans, and if their own practices made a mockery of that, they were incapable of recognizing it.

Eventually, In-N-Out did hire women (though none seem to have been promoted, ever), but whether this was a voluntary recognition of fairness and basic business sense or a requirement of government, Perman does not say. Suddenly, she begins to describe job applicants as “she,” but of explanation of this significant business decision, there is none.

As a business history, “In-B-Out Burger” is very poor. The company did not cooperate and since it also was not an SEC-reporting firm, writing a detailed business history would have been a challenge. Still, Perman did a lousy job of it. It is hard to believe she worked for BusinessWeek.

A further deficiency of the book is that Perman is only marginally literate. She often uses big words that sound something  like the word she needs but are not that word.

Nevertheless, the story itself carries the book.

In the second generation, the attitudes created in the first begin to play out as tragedy. One son dies in a wreck. Another ruins himself with fast cars and drugs. The third, Rich, proves a successful manager but with a fatal -- literally -- blind spot.

Rich Snyder believed that God was responsible for the success of In-N-Out, rather than a good business plan and hard work. A smiling, glad-handing businessman of generous instincts (he sent an In-N-Out cookout trailer to feed the homeless once a month), his embrace of one of Southern California’s biggest cults (Calvary Chapel, which sells bigotry as relentlessly as In-N-Out sells hamburgers) turned him into an obnoxious, generous, smiling, glad-handing businessman.

Worse for him, as often happens, he had completely misinterpreted God’s attitude to overcooked meat. (Had he read the relevant portions of the Bible, he might have been  more careful.) In 1993, God tired of burgers and made the corporate plane crash, killing Snyder and his management team.

So far as lawsuits reveal the truth, with the destruction of Rich Snyder, the desires of Harry Snyder to pass down wealth to blood relatives created the structure for tragedy.

Overly restrictive trusts (and a family habit of ill-considered marriages) laid his widow open to isolation and plunder, and while the burger chain multiplied, the Snyder family withered, until it was represented by one granddaughter, not as dutiful as Harry would have wished, and enamored of an even less attractive cult than Calvary Chapel.

Perhaps Theodore Dreiser would have done an even better job with this plot than Chandler.

Finance capitalism at work

What follows is a little bit inside baseball. I am an ex-newspaperman, so interested in how newspapers are mismanaged. (They are not mismanaged any worse than other businesses, which isn't saying much.) As a pensioner, I am particularly interested in management that wants to "restructure pensions."

You should be, too, you should live so long, because the rightwing agenda is to transfer your pension money to Wall Street.

Anyway, I agree with this analysis by the Guardians' Michael Wolff of the double bankruptcy of the Journal Register companies, except for one thing. Even good management (where it existed) didn't help newspapers, because the digital revolution involved -- and continues to involve -- stealing their product. It's hard to make a profit when somebody steals all your merchandise.

A separate report out from the Newspaper Association of America says that for every $1 in new digital revenue papers are receiving, they are losing $25. So that's the scale of the robbery.

But read the whole things.

Commenter "translated" has a thought that expands the point beyond newspaper publishing to all businesses: "there's not a business in the world that can survive the attention of Bain Capital-type 'investors' seeking to extract value."

I entirely agree, and among the reasons I think American business managers are stupid is that they are (to a great degree) supporting Romney, Like workers who supported Reagan, if they get what they want, they will regret it.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Second to whom?

So Romney tells a Virginia audience, we need to build up our navy so it is second to none. Who does he think it is second to now?

True, its high command is incompetent, but building ships won't fix that.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Book Review 251: Evelyn Waugh

EVELYN WAUGH: A Biography, by Selina Hastings. 724 pages, illustrated. Houghton Mifflin, $40

Evelyn Waugh was the leading example during the past century of the supremely talented artist with nothing to say.

Selina Hastings' beautiful biography is the more powerful for never coming right out and saying so. Writing of his school days, she says, “At heart conventional, he accepted tradition and authority while at the same time making it clear that he accepted them very much on his own terms.”

This is true enough in its way, but it requires a great deal of explication. Waugh after his conversion to Roman Catholicism presented himself as a defender of the early and unspoilt church, which, besides the fact that it never was unspoilt, did not itself accept Waugh's outre views. His view of sainthood, for example, was akin to that of a Sicilian peasant but not at all close to the views of his Jesuit teachers at Farm Street.

Since he was one of the finest stylists in English prose of his age (I used to think he was the finest but now class him as one of several rare talents along with T.H. White, Robert Coover and Julian Rathbone), the English church, still fighting to overturn the Protestant revolution, would have very much liked to have recruited him; and for his part, Waugh wanted to be recruited, but he was too strange and abrasive to make the cut. He wrote extensively for partisan magazines but more as freak than seer.

Even before his Catholicism, his acceptance of traditional mores was erratic. His homosexual affairs at school and college were hardly traditional to the chapel teachings of his beloved nanny nor of the the conventional Edwardian manners of his father, least radical of English bookmen. On the other hand, his love life could be considered as traditional for upper class English boys and even more so of English classicists, but Waugh was no classicist. His tastes ran toward Gothic.

Hastings sets all this out in interminable detail. For a while, I wondered if Waugh was ever going to get out of public school. But when he does, things speed up.

But here is the only real deficiency in this admirable biography. We do not care about Waugh as a thinker; he had no thoughts that a civilized person in the 21st century would care about; nor as a social critic, because while his satires are still wildly funny, they lack serious bite.

We read him, as he recognized at age 17 when he earned his scholarship at Oxford for “my English style,” for his unsurpassed skill with words.

Hastings does not suggest where this came from. As quotations from his letters and journal show, at age 11 or 12 he was practically illiterate; but by age 16 his style was mature.

In those years, he was bent on studying graphic arts and we learn a great deal about that. But who influenced his prose style remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma inside a conundrum.

Then follow several hundred pages of lurid gossip as Waugh makes his way into the least serious ranks of the upper crust, followed by more hundreds of much less salacious doings after he got religion.

If he ever encountered a saint, it was his second wife, who unaccountably put up with him. After his death, she sold his papers to Americans who published them. She was distressed to think that people would think she had been married to a monster. But she had been.

In the end, it is impossible to take Waugh seriously. The moral sexual dilemma of Guy Crouchback that he spent years and hundreds of pages developing is so trivial that it leaves anyone but a Catholic of Pius IX stripe baffled.

One of the American editors, I forget whether it was the editor of the letters or of the diaries, said Waugh died young (63) from boredom. I believe it.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Book Review 250: In Hock

IN HOCK: Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression, by Wendy A. Woloson. 233 pages, illustrated. Chicago

Like a lot of people, social hisrorian Wendy Woloson had never been in a pawnshop, but she'd heard bad things about them. After a lot of research, mostly in obscure 19th century archives, she came to a different conclusion.

In “In Hock” she concludes that American industrial capitalism (the “second industrial revolution”) could not have occurred without pawnbrokers.

Industrialists depended on low-wage workers who were periodically no-wage workers as plants laid off workers, especially in the financial panics that swept the nation every decade or so before the New Deal tried to control banks. There were almost no provisions for out-of-work workers, and large classes (women, African-Americans, Irish, children) were paid subsistence or less-than-subsistence wages when they were working.

Only the pawnbroker stood between them and starvation.

No thanks did he get for it. Pawnbrokers, like their customers, were on the fringe, and the economic powers did what they could to destroy, or at least limit pawnbroking. Only a very few men – usually those with personal experience of the successful municipal pawnshops of Europe – understood the benefits of pawn lending.

Respectable” businessmen and bankers, much later, had to be forced to treat customers without prejudice by regulation. There were plenty of regulations of pawnbrokers, but there has never been a law requiring pawnbrokers to treat all people the same.

At a time when bankers would not deal with women, blacks, Jews or people with shabby clothes, pawnbrokers stood ready to lend cash to all comers. The only thing that mattered was that the pawner had something valuable to pledge.

For the truly destitute, even the pawnbroker was no help.

In her lively, but sometimes repetitive book, Woloson ferrets out the pawnbroker in popular novels and advertisements, in rapidly growing cities, in small towns.

According to respectable opinion, pawnbrokers served only to provide money for drunkards to drink. A long statement by Woloson is worth quoting because it exposes the falsehood behind the capitalist program:

Industrial capitalism begat wealth and poverty, winners and losers. It remained in the winners' collective self-interest to create consensus among the larger public that capitalism was good for all of society, that wholesale and retail exchange were the 'normal' and 'mainstream' ways of doing business, and that this particular economic system was the only one befitting a modern, civilized nation. By its continued existence, however, pawnbroking demonstrated quite clearly that the promise of capitalism was broken for countless Americans. The true character of emergent industrial capitalism can be found beyond the shiny surfaces of retail show windows and the smooth pages of ledgers, revealing life at it was actually lived by most Americans, not simply the privileged few.

Tellingly, pawning remained a popular coping strategy throughout the nineteenth century, from the very dawn of capitalism through the second industrial revolution. The endurance of pawnbroking through radical economic shifts and perennial boom and bust cycles was an indication both of its ability to adapt to changing times and more important, of Americans' enduring need for such an institution. Regardless of the rhetoric championing capitalism as a democratizing force, it created inequities that led pawners to their local pawnshops. Pawnbroking could not have survived without the continued expansion of capitalism. Yet at every turn pawners, pawnbrokers, and the institution of pawnbroking were denigrated and demonized. Why was this so? Counting the great number who put things in hock makes it evident that there were many more losers than winners. What did it say about capitalism that it generated so many pawners? The symbiosis of pawning and capitalism warrants further examination if we are to fully understand the living and working lives of those who came before us and comprehend the economic exigencies of the people who continue to struggle today.”

Woloson ends her history in the Great Depression. The New Deal and the postwar liberal economic system were nearly fatal to pawnshops. For a while, it was predicted that they would fade out.

The rise of brutal finance capitalism has created wonderful business for pawnshops, which are doing better today than ever.

Melting glaciers

I note that that ineffable mythologizer Michael Mann is yammering on about melting ice in the Arctic, as if that never happened before.

A Discover magazine piece by geologist David Montgomery claims that the world's deepest canyon was carved by the outrush of a glacial lake in Tibet when the glacier melted.

And when did this happen? Oh, 1,200 years ago (dated by leftover wood), or just about the time Mann claims it was not warm.

Hat tip: Little Green Footballs, a fervently pro-warmist site that apparently failed to understand what Montgomery was saying.

Book Review 249: Murder Will Out

MURDER WILL OUT: Irish Murder Cases, by Tom Reddy. 190 pages. Gill & MacMillan paperback

Irish newspaperman Tom Reddy's little book is intended to show how effective the forensics services of the Garda (Irish state police) have been. It was written well before the popularity of forensics shows on American television.

The Garda claim to solve 99% of homicides, a rate that in America would lead to suspicion about railroading or fraudulent lab work, but the Garda is not the FBI, and perhaps in a small country with a small number of murders the claim can be taken at face value.

The working principle of the Irish investigators is that every action leaves its mark somewhere. On the infrequent occasions when a corpse is found on an Irish road, dozens of Garda go over the country on their hands and knees, looking for everything.

It is impossible to imagine American cops doing such a thing.

For an American reader, though, “Murder Will Out” stands as a powerful indictment of our gun nuts and the fallout of the Second Amendment.

The Irish are not a peaceable people. Several of the murders recounted by Reddy were IRA assassinations (the only famous crime in the selection is the bombing of Lord Mountbatten's fishing boat, a political assassination). And the murders selected were not chosen by Reddy to make any points about firearms or causes of murder, but only to illustrate good forensics work,

But it is remarkable how hands-on Irish murderers have to be.

Guns are common in the countryside, for hunting, and there is a shotgun murder here. But there are many more strangulation murders and beatings.

It is a lot easier to kill in the heat of the moment if you have a pistol handy.

American gun nuts are fond of saying that guns don't kill people, people kill people. That's true, but people who have guns are able to kill a lot more people than people who have only a knife, candlestick or bare hands.

Ireland, like Somalia, has suffered from the increase in the population of cheap but reliable handarms. After an offduty Garda officer was shot by bankrobbers, the minister of justice, Patrick Cooney, said: “Those who have introduced this cult of the gun into Irish society have a lot to answer for.”

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The beach that didn't erode when it should have

A tale of three coastlines

Two of Maui's coastal areas have been in the news during the last couple of weeks, but just as interesting is a third one that has not been, but was supposed to be.

The ones in the news are Launiupoko, where Honoapiilani Highway is falling into the ocean, and the Kahului sewage treatment plant, where an 1,100-foot seawall is proposed to keep buildings from being washed out.

Not in the news is the long stretch of beach along North Kihei Road. Old-timers may recall that some 18 to 20 years ago, it was predicted that erosion would reach the road within five years. It didn't.

What happened? Cars struck two hawksbill turtles that were crawling across the highway looking for a place to nest. In alarm about wildlife, snow fences were put up to halt the turtles before they got to the road.

This apparently also had the effect of changing the dune geometry enough to retard the alongshore erosion. Unfortunately, something as cheap and benign as a snow fence is probably not going to do the job that seawalls do.

And benign is relative. The fences have prevented any more endangered turtles from being run over and killed, but although motorists killed a large fraction of the hawksbill that like that stretch of beach for nesting, they didn't get them all.

Since the fences went up, several nests have been discovered, but, for lack of access to a place they'd like, in the high dune close to the waves. Not one of these nests has resulted in developed eggs.

Turtle watchers suspect that the locations are too dry and salty. Mother knows best. Farther inland is better.
I don't know what could be done about this. Maybe dig up nests and relocate them, and then help the hatchlings to the water.

Maybe water the nests in place.

Launiupoko is an example of the rule that if you defer maintenance long enough, a minor problem will become a crisis.

That the shoreline is retreating there has been obvious for a long time. During Hurricane Iniki, waves were hurling softball-size rocks across the road like cannonballs.

As long as Pioneer Mill was farming that area, it was unlikely anything would be done to move the road inland. When Pioneer left, a golden chance to pick up the land cheap and begin realigning the road was missed.

Since then, slow progress has been made. Not fast enough to prevent the state DOT from armoring the shoreline.

At one point – I believe it was during Linda Lingle's mayoralty – the planning department decided it would no longer support any further armoring of Maui's shores. It always causes trouble somewhere down the line.

That was good policy. But it's been forgotten.

Now the county itself is proposing to further harden the shoreline near the airport.

The alternatives were all expensive.

Moving the sewage treatment plant inland was expected to cost nearly half a billion dollars. Naturally, the council preferred to waterproof the plant.

Even that cost many tens of millions. The idea is that when a tsunami or hurricane threatens to swamp the plant, it will be shut down and buttoned up. The waves will wash over the plant, doing (it is hoped) little permanent damage to Kanaha Pond wildlife refuge as the partially treated sewage in open tanks is spread around.

If the electrical systems are waterproofed, the plant can be restarted within a day or so after the overflow. (The Japanese should have been so prudent at Fukushima, although to work this plan requires adequate warning, which the Japanese tsunami did not give.)

Not mentioned, that I can recall, during the discussions about waterproofing the plant was the coming need to armor the shoreline. 1,100 feet is a lot of seawall, bound to cause trouble downcurrent – which at that location is in either direction, because the current changes direction with the seasons.

For Labor Day, a thought about bosses

It's from historian Alan Taylor.

All experience teaches that, if an elite run affairs, they do so in their own interests, and this is perhaps truer of businessmen than of any other so-called elite.
Two thoughts, actually.

We hear a lot from rightwingers about "union thugs" and the Second Amendment and how it protects our liberties. Here's an historical fact:

In the entire history of the United States, the militia has been used dozens of times to shoot down workers and their families, but never to shoot bosses. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Catastrophe in Tampa

If the Republican Party was interested in making inroads with reality-based voters at its convention, then it was a disaster.

First, Ann Romney came forward to describe her husband and herself as regular folks. Just like you and me, they struggled to get through college, working minimum wage jobs . . . oh, wait, rewind . . . because Mitt had been given only a rather small fortune and had to sell off his stocks frugally to pay expenses.

Then Paul Ryan quit running imaginary marathons long enough to tell us about the sad events when Barack Obama closed down  a GM plant in Janesville, which is in Ryan's district . . . oh, wait, rewind . . . the plant was already closed by the time Obama came in. Plea to Karl Rove: Can you ask Sherman Adelson to look under the cushions on his sofa and see if there's enough there to buy Paul Ryan a watch and a calendar?

Many leftwingers said Ryan's speech was the most dishonest in the history of political conventions, but that's just typical leftwing exaggeration. It wasn't as dishonest as Nixon's "secret-plan-to-end-the-war" speech at Miami in '72.

But it was probably the second-most dishonest convention speech ever.

By the time Romney himself spoke, his campaign had put out a statement that it wasn't interested in facts, so, on the whole, the fact-free nature of his speech was anticlimactic.

But there was some excitement in anticipation of a surprise speaker. I was certainly surprised when that turned out to be a senile hoofer (if you've forgotten the hoofing, rent "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers") who hasn't read a newspaper since the 21st century began and who is a cultural icon who stands for disregarding due process of law, letting police stomp on civil rights and insane gun nuttery.

Black and Latino voters may have a different view of Dirty Harry than white Kluxers do, and it is hard to figure out why convention organizers who went to the trouble of putting several brown speakers on the podium thought that Clint Eastwood would not cancel out that effort.

But then, the premise of this post is that the Tampa convention was meant to reach out to the reality-based voters, and that is almost certainly a mistaken idea.