Sunday, September 27, 2020

Weapon of Wealth Destruction

Saddam Hussein and Donald Trump have a key area in common. Saddam didn't want to cooperate with the UN weapons inspectors, because he feared a public finding that he didn't have weapons of mass destruction: his ability to intimidate enemies would be gone. Donald Trump didn't want to cooperate with the wealth inspectors -- the Internal Revenue Service -- because he feared a public finding that he didn't have any wealth (as the New York Times tax returns revelations show). His ability to impress signifier-susceptible voters would be gone (James Poniewozik wrote a book about this). 

Friday, September 25, 2020

It's too late for a fence

Back in March and April, when there was a lot of bewilderment about the coronavirus, Tomás Pueyo introduced the vivid terminology of The Hammer and the Dance for the sequence that would be needed to get the pandemic under control. Even if the prescription was never exactly followed, it's a useful way to describe a cluster of severe measures early on, and then a more protracted phase of adjustments after that. Pueyo has now written a New York Times sequel calling for a "fence" -- based on the apparent movement of the virus from country to country and around cities and counties within a country. So if we restrict these kinds of movements, we restrict the virus. 

Maybe. But consider the following. We're now almost 10 months into the pandemic. The virus is everywhere. When we see new infection surges, these aren't infection surges from travel. They're local surges from social activity, aggravated by non-compliance with social distancing. The "fence" would have to be within a city to be effective, and there have to be at least a minimal consensus about what behaviour needs to be restricted on the infected side of the fence, and how this would be enforced (Madrid clearly lacks both at the moment).  

The ultra environmentalist mantra -- "we are the virus" -- is true. There is no possible fence, except the one that magically moves around with us, the zone corresponding to social distancing. But social distancing became uncool in June. And there seems to be little willingness to adopt it again, across all age groups. It's going to be a long winter. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Virtue of Parliament

There are many odd aspects to the "Kent Access Permit" revelation in the House of Commons today, although whether it's actually surprising depends on how much attention you were paying to "experts" about Brexit. But among the odd things: Michael Gove didn't even mention the permit in his opening statement. It was only revealed as part as a response to a follow-up question from Damian Green:

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con) I can assure my right hon. Friend that the so-called Saxon wall on the Ashford site is in fact a myth: it is not Saxon and it is not holding up work. The prospect of 7,000 trucks queuing to cross the channel will send a chill through my constituents, because we know the disastrous effect that has on all the roads in Kent. I very much support my right hon. Friend in his work to prepare the road haulage industry for the end of the transition period, but may I ask about the Government’s own preparations and specifically the smart freight system that he mentioned, which is essential for the smooth running of traffic across the channel? Can he give a guarantee that that system will be fully up and running and operational from January?

Michael Gove My right hon. Friend makes a number of very important points, and I am grateful to him for clearing up the point about archaeology, which I failed to address in my response to the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), but his expertise in this area is greater. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we want to avoid the level of congestion that this reasonable worst-case scenario sets out, and he is also absolutely right that that requires people to work together. It requires not just the haulage industry, but in particular those goods exporters who commit goods to haulage to be ready in time. Part of that is the smart freight system, which has been developed and is being shared with business. We want to make sure that people use a relatively simple process to get what will become known as a Kent access permit, which means that they can then proceed smoothly through Kent because they have the material required. If they do not have the material required, through policing, ANPR cameras and other means, we will do our very best to ensure that his constituents are not inconvenienced.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Could not happen today

From Studies in World Christianity / Volume 25, Issue 3 / The Origins of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in the United States: Early Developments in Indiana and Michigan and the Reactions of the Ecclesiastical Authorities by Valentina Ciciliot --

In the spring of 1973, Fr Michel Dubois, a priest from Belgium, was introduced to The Word of God charismatic community in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as someone who had come from Europe to experience the Catholic charismatic renewal in person. He stayed with community members in their homes, attended prayer meetings, met with a variety of small groups and participated in seminars. Only at the end of his approximately five-day visit did he reveal to everyone his true identity: Cardinal Léon Joseph Suenens, archbishop of Malines–Brussels and primate of Belgium, and one of the four moderators of Vatican II. Few in the community knew who he was, and his plan for anonymity worked well enough that he was able to have a personal encounter with this new movement in the US, known at that time as Catholic Pentecostalism (later it was widely known as the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, hereafter CCR).

Why, you ask, is the proprietor of this blog looking up this kind of stuff? Because while Republicans seem to be trying to bait Democrats into making Amy Coney Barrett's Catholicism an issue, it's the charismatic part that's going to be interesting if that ends up as a line of questioning. 

Friday, September 18, 2020

Written long before Coronavirus, fits very well with Coronavirus


Worried about the status of his ski-season European gabfest invitations


Saturday, September 12, 2020

Coronavirus observation

We are where the WHO feared back in February that we would be if widespread mask-wearing became a major plank of pandemic strategy: masks have a become a substitute, not a complement, for other pandemic precautions formerly known as social distancing. Public health measures have targeted the more obvious non-distancing arenas (e.g. restaurants) but all sorts of social consumption and social leisure activities have popped up in their place -- not to mention the Veblen intersection of those two activities: conspicuous consumption. 

"But we're wearing masks!"

Hope you're all geared up for a winter of home-schooling.

Al Qaeda agrees that 9/11 was about Israel

Mike Pence at the White House Israel / Bahrain recognition announcement

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  Mr. President, I can think of no more fitting tribute to the heroes that were forged on this day 19 years ago, and all the heroes that were forged on battlefields ever since, than to see this peace agreement announced today. 

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Outside avocado toast land

Excellent Wall Street Journal article on successful corporate adaptations to Coronavirus concludes:

Christy Johnson, who left her job as a consultant at McKinsey when her daughter was born, said many talented professionals are overlooked because they can't work 60 to 100 hours a week out of offices in New York or San Francisco. She started Artemis Connection, which provides business strategy advice to midsize companies, to tap this underutilized pool. All 40 of her employees work from home, from California to Wisconsin to Turkey. 

"If you go to nonurban areas, there's amazing talent hanging out," she said.


Saturday, August 22, 2020

Fighting the last war


The Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and his delegation packed into a meeting with Donald Trump and his delegation at the White House on Thursday. No masks, and just two women at the table. 

Photo via Iraqi PM's website -- transparency!

Thursday, August 20, 2020

If it ain't broke

Wall Street Journal,  reporting on the perfect segue from Paul Ryan's vacuous "deficit hawk" political career:

Paul Ryan, the consummate Washington negotiator, is trying his hand at another kind of deal making, jumping into the rush on Wall Street toward blank-check acquisition companies.

The former House speaker will serve as chairman of a vehicle known as Executive Network Partnering Corp., which will seek to raise roughly $300 million in an initial public offering, people familiar with the deal said. That figure is subject to change based on demand. 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Claude Rains in Dublin

 The Google photo album from Berlin D2, the Dublin "restaurant" that was discovered to be a raucous drinking establishment, is hilarious. Check out the "Soup of the Day."

Friday, August 14, 2020

Pilgrimage Diplomacy

 Donald Trump, explaining his breakthrough agreement with the UAE and Israel yesterday --

This deal will allow much greater access to Muslims from throughout the world to visit the many historic sites in Israel — which the Muslims want to see very badly and have wanted to see for many, many decades — and to peacefully pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is a very special place for them.

There is lots for Palestinians to worry about in this deal, but this particular point is up there. If Israel is able to present the deal as broadening access of Muslims to Al-Aqsa, that could be a useful distraction from the restricted access of Palestinians to Al-Aqsa. Ultimately, it could be a front for isolating the Palestinian capital behind the security barrier: after all, Muslims will have more access to the Old City, right?

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The sociology of News


Niklas Luhmann, The Reality of the Mass Media (1996) --

Apart from reports about norm violations, there is also a preference for the extraordinary (the 'alligator in local gravel pit' sort), which take normally expected circumstances as their point of reference and are perhaps better assigned to the entertainment sector.

[previous Luhmann post]

Sunday, August 09, 2020

It's not about language

Andrew Roberts in the Wall Street Journal, reviving the Anglosphere idea, in this case, Canada, Australia,  New Zealand,  UK:

They are, moreover, racially diverse, multicultural countries with a long history of working together, including the period when their military collaboration was, in 1940-41, the sole force on the planet that resisted Nazi totalitarianism. 

Leaving aside the bigger problems, even purely technically, this is wrong.  Greece never stopped resisting, and was never fully conquered. 

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Fox offers to rebuild henhouse

 Lebanon National News Agency --

the Iranian ambassador said that "the support of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Lebanon will continue, not only through the provision of humanitarian aid in terms of medicine, medicine and foodstuffs, but also will include the restoration of Reconstruction in the port, the damaged buildings, and everything that can be provided to support the people and the government in Lebanon. "

Friday, August 07, 2020

The Beirut unknowns


One of the many aspects of the Beirut port disaster. This is the list of deceased issued by the Ministry of Health. There are still at least 13 unidentified bodies, and that doesn't include the victims not yet found. 

Breaking the law

Simon Kuper in the Financial Times from 3 weeks ago, and now only more relevant --

Trump has helpfully uncovered bits of the American system that need fixing fast. What were unwritten norms before him could now become laws. All future presidential candidates should be obliged to divest their assets, release their tax returns and report foreign attempts to meddle in an election. Presidents should lose their power over federal prosecutors, and over inspectors-general who act as watchdogs of cabinet departments. Presidents shouldn’t be allowed to pardon criminal associates like Roger Stone.

This is a critical point: norms need to become laws. Much of American political reporting is driven by adherence to, and supposed breaches, of norms. Maybe in some past time, this had a real enforcement quality to it, as the norms had a critical mass of acceptance. 

But two things happened. 

First, the appeal to norms became more absurd as conservative media learned how to play the game. Norms as ridiculous as: presidents shouldn't wear tan suits, shouldn't drink orange juice in diners, and shouldn't have their own e-mail servers became scandal cycles -- the last one potentially altering an election. 

Second, Trump showed that you could blow through any conceivable definition of norms and still win elections. The icing on this particular cake: he's now planning to make what would have been his Republican convention speech on the grounds of the White House, an obvious violation of the "norm" about co-mingling campaign and official roles ... and that's it. Pundits will huff and puff, but it will be consequence free.

Make norms into laws. Then Trump would be Breaking the Law. 

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Quote of the Day

Ben Smith, New York Times --

But the American media plays a bizarrely outsize role in American elections, occupying the place of most countries’ national election commissions. Here, the media actually assembles the results from 50 states, tabulates them and declares a victor. And — we can’t really help ourselves — the media establishes the narrative to explain what happened.

This fact is poorly understood outside the USA, and sometimes even within it. 

Also poorly understood, and interacting with the above, is that the USA does not have a directly elected President. but that's for another day. 


The ship of state may be sinking, but the New Yorker will always use the diaeresis --

Is the Postal Service Being Manipulated to Help Trump Get Reëlected?

The Marxist Club dilemma (Groucho version)

Gerard Baker, today's Wall Street Journal --

As our cultural, media and corporate chiefs deliver their social and political wisdom from their redoubts in New York’s Hamptons, Palm Beach, Fla., and the greener pastures of the San Francisco Bay Area, America’s cities have been ravaged by successive predations of lockdown, disorder and violence.

Gerard Baker, from his July 2017 interview, in the White House, with the Trumps:

TRUMP: Well, then you have to go and decide on what [healthcare] plan you want, which way you’re going to go. You want to decide on is it repeal or repeal and replace. If it’s repeal and replace, which one do you want to go? Which form of existing conditions? I mean, there’s many things. But once you’re in there, then you can really negotiate. This is actually the heart, though. Once you’re there, you can, you know, Gerard — oh, say hello. 

IVANKA TRUMP: Hi, Gerard. How are you? 

BAKER: Oh, hey. How nice to see you. How are you doing? 

IVANKA TRUMP: I heard you were here. I wanted to come by and say hi. (Cross talk.) How is your Arabella?

BAKER: Oh, very — (inaudible). She just got back from Costa Rica. She was there for two weeks. And how’s — and how’s yours? 

IVANKA TRUMP: Oh, very good. (Inaudible.) 

BAKER: It was nice to see you out in Southampton a couple weeks ago.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

If only the Tsar knew

New York Times --

Far from a strongman, Mr. Trump has lately become a heckler in his own government, promoting medical conspiracy theories on social media, playing no constructive role in either the management of the coronavirus pandemic or the negotiation of an economic rescue plan in Congress — and complaining endlessly about the unfairness of it all.

This is an increasingly popular pundit / political reporter narrative about Trump: that somehow, the head of state and government is isolated from governing. It allows everyone else -- the Cabinet, the appointed officials, the Congressional leadership, governors who depend on the federal government playing its role, and media who report on it -- to absolve themselves from blocking, speaking up, or walking out as the country stumbles through a disaster. 

The USA is experiencing a systemic, structural failure, and the fantasy that it's just one malevolent detached leader, an inverse of the benign Tsar who just didn't know what was going on in Russia -- is part of the problem. 

People were slow to realize the narrative that was being set up in 2016 -- yes, Trump is horrible, but so horrible that Hillary will win, therefore we can concentrate on her flaws. We know where that got us. Don't fall for another version of it in 2020. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Quote of the Day

Chemi Shalev, Haaretz --

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly spread word of his intention to call snap elections. In the latest version of his unattributed leaks, November is the target date, in close and even suspicious proximity to the November 3 elections in the United States. Perhaps Netanyahu envisages a joint heroic leap with U.S. President Donald Trump into the abyss, a la Thelma and Louise.

Joe Biden, do not pick Susan Rice as your VP nominee

Susan Rice, 16 January 2017 --

We were able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapons stockpile.


A great detail in the New York Times obituary for Peter Green --

Mr. Green’s main instrument in Fleetwood Mac was a 1959 Les Paul Standard, known as Greeny, that had one pickup installed in reverse, creating a distinctive tone because it put the instrument’s two pickups magnetically out of phase. After leaving Fleetwood Mac, he sold the guitar to the Irish rocker Gary Moore; in 1995, Mr. Moore made an album of Mr. Green’s songs called “Blues for Greeny.” The guitar is now owned by Kirk Hammett of Metallica.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Bobos of Summer

Janan Ganesh in the FT Weekend (subs. req'd)

The corollary, of course, is a view of summer as the vulgarian's season, good for socialising but not real intimacy, for surface pleasures but not the life of the mind.  

It's an excellent rumination on the low cultural esteem in which summer is held, especially in the mid-upper latitudes (both income and geographic). 

There is more that could be said. On any question of elite consumption patterns, it's always worth heading back to Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) and sure enough the great man has a ready quote:

Time is consumed non-productively (1) from a sense of the unworthiness of productive work, and (2) as an evidence of pecuniary ability to afford a life of idleness. But the whole of the life of the gentleman of leisure is not spent before the eyes of the spectators who are to be impressed with that spectacle of honorific leisure which in the ideal scheme makes up his life. For some part of the time his life is perforce withdrawn from the public eye, and of this portion which is spent in private the gentleman of leisure should, for the sake of his good name, be able to give a convincing account. He should find some means of putting in evidence the leisure that is not spent in the sight of the spectators. This can be done only indirectly, through the exhibition of some tangible, lasting results of the leisure so spent — in a manner analogous to the familiar exhibition of tangible, lasting products of the labour performed for the gentleman of leisure by handicraftsmen and servants in his employ.

In other words, as wealth grows while the old means of signalling status decline -- titles, castles, land, huge household staffs, banquets -- it's only so far that visible spending will get you. For the time that the well-off person is not engaged in conspicuous consumption (Veblen's famous coinage), he has to be able to show that, even then, he was consuming his leisure in a way that others with whom he's competing for status would have trouble replicating. 

Thus, for the upper middle class, summer is useless. The most visible manifestation of a leisurely summer is ... a tan. Which anyone can get, from a cheap holiday, or a bottle. Of course you could try to up the ante with the "beach bod," but that's a dangerous arena of competition for Bobos, because it's vulnerable to competition from other classes through luck, effort, or wealth, and in any event, increasingly prone to bourgeois guilt as a goal. 

As Ganesh indicates with a hygge example, winter is much, much better for conspicuous leisure than summer. All sorts of refined wealth signalling are possible through activities, decor and culture, more than access to sun alone will allow. 

The final, almost cosmic, irony is that it was those winter conspicuous leisure types who brought Coronavirus from the Alps to all over Europe, and beyond, and ruined summer for the rest of us. 

[Previously on Veblen: his "epic troll" (as the kids say) of dog owners]

Friday, July 24, 2020

Quote of the Day

Dr Ashish Jha, Harvard Global Health Institute, quoted in a Wall Street Journal article on how Europe has kept coronavirus under control compared to USA:

"When I look at Europe, there is no single, best way: There are lots of ways," he adds. "There is no magic formula, but they all begin with taking the virus seriously and not having debates about inane things."