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February 18, 2012

war on suggestible crazy people

I hate to be skeptical of our Federal Bureau of Investigation (mostly for "The X-Files", I guess), but I'm wondering exactly what I need to see before the FBI's various terrorism busts (most recent coming yesterday) stop seeming like a concerted and persistent effort to dig up lunatics and entrap them in fake-terrorism plots.

I'm for law enforcement, and I'm for robust anti-terrorism efforts (surveillance! informants!), but none of the arrests of home-grown terrorists, cuffed after they tried to set off the fake bomb given to them by the FBI, rise above at least the appearance of entrapment.  As in FBI informant tells crazy guy, "Hey, wanna be a terrorist?" and crazy guy says, "Maybe," and then Fed says, "It's really cool!" and then crazy guy says, "Okay!"

And the argument can be made that crazy people easily tricked into wanting to be terrorists are as bad as terrorists themselves.  (It's not one I'd go with, but I'd at least entertain the notion.)  But I'm not certain that that's the most useful allocation of the FBI's resources.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:29 AM

February 17, 2012

a dumb-money economy

Further to Chris Lehmann's post last week (and you can add Taibbi to the list of people stepping up for batting practice), I did find one passage in Gabriel Sherman's derided NY Magazine feature about whining Wall Street bigs that is worth repeating in a good way and not a bad way:
“We used to rely on the public making dumb investing decisions,” one well-known Manhattan hedge-fund manager told me. “but with the advent of the public leaving the market, it’s just hedge funds trading against hedge funds. At the end of the day, it’s a zero-sum game.” Based on these numbers—too many funds with fewer dollars chasing too few trades—many have predicted a hedge-fund shakeout, and it seems to have started. Over 1,000 funds have closed in the past year and a half.

Here's what I take from that: financial services is an industry like any other, with a sober profit margin but a profit margin nonetheless.  Except for the fact that, in the past thirty years, the profit margins are no longer sober, because the financiers are no longer playing with smart money.  What happened was they found a way to play with dumb money — both by convincing people not conventionally wealthy enough to put their money in the market, and by creating a succession of bubbles which creates fake equity that is siphoned off by financial services, leaving the reckoning to be borne by the institutional investors and the rest of the dumb money.

Remember in the second W. Bush administration, when his primary goal was to save social security by privatizing it?  That was nothing more (and remains so) than a ploy to add another two of three trillion dollars of dumb money into the market for the financial services to predate on.

So, to the "well-known Manhattan hedge-fund manager" quoted above, Wall Street running under the conditions that existed 40 years ago, which produced all sorts of millionaires and billionaires, is a zero-sum game.  To him, running a hedge fund without marks to fleece is like skeet shooting without some fellow throwing the skeet up there when you yell, "Pull!"

From Taibbi's piece linked above:

The financial services industry went from having a 19 percent share of America’s corporate profits decades ago to having a 41 percent share in recent years. That doesn’t mean bankers ever represented anywhere near 41 percent of America’s labor value. It just means they’ve managed to make themselves horrifically overpaid relative to their counterparts in the rest of the economy.

I think a useful national conversation to have would be to try to answer the question, "How on earth are the financial services industries, the 'efficient allocation of captial,' worth 41% of the value of the American economy?"

Posted by mrbrent at 12:26 PM

the inexplicable redemption of agent g

Here's a thing you should do: go see The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G at the Beckett Theater in the Theater Row complex on NYC's 42nd Street.

I know, it's a play, and why would you want to do that?  Well, it's a production of Vampire Cowboys, which usually puts up stuff that is in the sci-fi/comic book vein — they call it Geek Theater.  And Geek Theater is great, and VC certainly has a claim to putting it on the map, but "Agent G" is not entirely Geek Theater.  Or more accurately, it is Geek Theater, but takes on a concept more serious than their usual themes of mayhem and fun.

Not to give too much away, playwright Qui Nguyen has been trying to tell an old family story for years, about his cousin and the circumstances under which he left Vietnam.  And "Agent G" is his last chance.

This is a remount, and when I saw the first version last year, I was a bit lukewarm on it.  It had all the bombast (stage combat, puppets, rap battles) that makes a show fun, but I felt the conceit, the telling of the family story, was a bit problematic, or a bit of a gimmick.

But "Agent G" has been tweaked and partly recast and restaged, and now everything runs smoothly, including the conceit.  It is also now powerful and moving.

I'm Qui's friend (and friends with the rest of the gang, and I sit on the board too, now that I think of it), but this is in no way an obligatory pimping of an arbitrary bit of theater.  I went on Tuesday in that half-grudging "might as well get this over with" sort of way, and left with the taste smacked out of my mouth.

If it sounds like your sort of thing (and if you live in the area, natch), you should go see it.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:57 AM

February 15, 2012

mitt romney: this is personal

In case your Wednesday is feeling like more of a Monday (workweek/job satisfaction contingent, of course), this should cheer your stuff up: Mitt Romney's rolling out a new TV ad in Michigan!  Funny, what, having to run an ad in a state that is the birthplace of the Romney dynasty, if you can call it that.  Well, you probably can't, but his pop was governor there and he lived there when he was a little kid, and so the fact that he's about to get creamed by a man he lost his most recent election in 2006 by nineteen points is causing him some alarm.

Since I probably wouldn't post the ad even if I ever posted video on this site, here's a description of the relevant portion

“How in the world did an industry and its leaders and its unions get in such a fix that they lost jobs, that they lost their future? President Obama did all these things that liberals have wanted to do for years,” Romney says as he drives around the city in a Chrysler. “I want to make Michigan stronger and better. Michigan has been my home, and this is personal.”

(Emphasis mine, as if it needs to be emphasized.)

There's some head-scratching in the establishment as to why the Romney campaign is withering so, as it's his turn, and he generally has nice teeth and will ultimately do whatever Grover Norquist tells him to do.  But he's not connecting with the base.  This may have something to do with the general derangement of the base, or it could have to do something with the blandness of Mitt Romney, but whatever it is, it's leading him to ridiculous decisions like appearing in an ad making a bitter vow to stand for the honor of a state he lived in forty years ago.  Though maybe one of his houses is there?  The steely stare of Mitt Romney is not so much presidential as it is bright-light-shining-in-his-eyes.

Additionally!  It's apparently derivative of a prior Romney ad for New Hampshire,  Which is to say, either the campaign is pretty sure that voters have short memories, or they plan on Mitt having a Clint-Eastwood moment in each state of the union.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:37 AM

February 14, 2012

russia!

I'm not sure what Alessandra Stanley did that merited her being sent to Russua by the NYTimes, but her series looking at the state of Russian TV is interesting, if not illuminating.  (Though would the same apply to sending the TV critic to review the programming of anywhere that's not here?  Probably.)

Amid the cultural idiosyncrasies and parochial interests that drive the programs that are described (many of which could pass as a parody of what one would imagine Russian TV to be like), there's an apt little peek in ">today's installment into the last vestiges of Pravda-style propaganda being employed to buoy the fading chances of the once-and-future president Vladimir Putin:

A typical five-minute, two-act segment on Channel One in late January presented him tending to the vast hole in the ground outside the Kremlin where the hulking Hotel Rossiya once loomed as a giant monument to boxy Soviet architecture and bad service.

In the first frame the mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, sat meekly across a desk from Mr. Putin and described proposals for high-rise complexes to replace the hotel, which was razed a few years ago. The prime minister looked skeptical and suggested they go take a look. In the next scene Mr. Putin, in a parka but hatless in the Russian winter, strode masterfully across snow-covered rubble, the mayor at his side.

“You know, I’ve just come up with an idea,” Mr. Putin said, as if a light bulb had suddenly gone on over his head. “A park,” he proposed, a Kremlin green zone that would bring light and air to Moscow’s congested, smoggy center.

“That would be great,” the mayor replied, wonderstruck. “It’s a very good decision, I think.” (And actually it is a good idea, especially in an election year.)

There's not much to say to that but, "HA!"  And that can't possibly work, right?  Are there still electorates on the planet so naive as to fall for such obviously fabricated narrative, such deliberately manipulative nonsense?

I mean, except for the United States, of course.  But anywhere other than here?

Posted by mrbrent at 9:59 AM

February 13, 2012

krugman on the promethean fate of the gop

I think I figured Paul Krugman out, or at least part of his appeal: what Paul Krugman does that elicits the fervent approval of so many is that he finds something that is demonstrably true but not widely spoken and then widely speaks it.

Like today, for instance, in which he gives another couple hundred words to the current state of conservatism:

For decades the G.O.P. has won elections by appealing to social and racial divisions, only to turn after each victory to deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy — a process that reached its epitome when George W. Bush won re-election by posing as America’s defender against gay married terrorists, then announced that he had a mandate to privatize Social Security.

Over time, however, this strategy created a base that really believed in all the hokum — and now the party elite has lost control.

You and I know this, but I wouldn't yet call it accepted wisdom.  But the current conservative zeal for government can be distilled into cut taxes (and bust unions and cut social services — that sort of thing), and what is thought of as the Republican base is a frothing mob of sociopaths waiting to be told who next to blame, a Frankenstein created by Karl Rove and not pretty much uncontrollable.  (Er, they're favoring Rick Santorum as a candidate right now.  If that's not the definition of uncontrollable I don't know what is.

And Krugman lays it down succinctly and almost blithely, like maybe he's playing bridge while writing it.  But it's good, and its sentiments should be repeated.

Now, the economist part of Krugman, I haven't figured that out at all.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:59 AM

February 12, 2012

peter straub

I don't know if this is a regret or not, but I'm a pretty dedicated rereader.  I kind of always have been, but it's been getting worse the older I get.  And it's not very focused: sometimes I'll reread the book I just read, sometimes I'll reread for the third or fourth time the book I've had since I was in high school, and sometimes I'll hunt down copies of books that I read decades ago just for the sole purpose of rereading.

The regret aspect of this is that there are so many books out there in the world that I either want to or should read that I feel like every time I reread that means one more book that I'll never get around to reading for the first time before I eat it.  Like, a friend lent me a copy of "The Art of Fielding" months ago, and instead of starting, I've slipped two rereads ahead of it in the queue.  Sorry, friend/Chad.

And the deep nostalgia rereads, the searching/finding of the book you remember loving are the hardest, at least for me, because four times out of five it's a deep disappointment, and therefore a case in which the modern version of yourself passes harsh judgment on the younger version of yourself, which younger version genuinely loved the now-terrible book.  I won't name names, because backlists still exist and any novelist making a living, even the shitty ones, is a good thing for my universe.

But I'm jotting this down because I'm in the middle of one of those one time out of five experiences.— My enthusiasm for Peter Straub is no secret.  Dude was crushing it back before my parents were my age.  And his work has never exactly let me down in the sense of the reread, but sometimes it did not do more than ratify my teen-hood opinion.  But I'm finally around to rereading "Floating Dragon," which is one of the Straubs that I've only read once.  And this one is not just ratifying my long-held opinion, it's opening like a flower in ways that I was not sophisticated enough to understand at the time.

It's a standard 70s/80s horror novel, back when mild psychic powers of protagonists were par for the course, but Straub's obsession with both locality and the introduction of the unexpected narrator are in high form.  The plot's coming back to me the deeper I get into it, but the facility with which Straub dances in and out the history of a specific place and the power of the evolving narrator are blowing the roof clean off my house.  I am deeply in lurve, all over again, and for once not embarrassed by youthful enthusiasms.

So yes, I probably will never read the tiger mom memoir since I'm rereading this paperback that made Straub a nice pile of cash thirty years ago, but it's a good smart book, and it's nice to find out that the long-ago me was not a total idiot w/r/t literary taste.

Posted by mrbrent at 4:13 PM

birth control?

The interesting thing about the GOP brinkmanship over birth control is that they were handed an issue of legitimate controversy — Catholic doctrine will not allow for church money going to birth control in our lifetimes — and they're overreaching.  To frame this as a religious freedom issue and stand with the Holy See is a no-brainer.  But to dig in the heels and conflate this into some sort of war against birth control is just tone deaf.

I understand the instinct: an issue turns out to be political gold, so you double down on it.  But to come out and turn this into an implied crusade against birth control, which is not only an accepted element of preventative care but also about as controversial as elementary school, is just D-U-M dumb.

I'm against this, of course, but I really just expect more in the way of insidious political maneuvering from the Republican leadership.  Like the flag-burning thing twelve years ago, or the gay marriage wedge in 2004?  That shit worked.  But on this, I feel like there's going to be a bunch of right-leaning moderates who will vociferously agree with the GOP caucus and then a day later wonder to themselves what exactly they're opposing.  "This whole thing is over condoms and the pill?  Err..."

I mean, go for it, dudes, and it's nice of them to give Santorum an issue that he can really get behind.  But Mitch McConnell and John Boehner might want to check their emails for a Wait/Stop/Don't email from Karl Rove.

Posted by mrbrent at 3:27 PM