Thursday, December 27, 2007

Shades of O.J.?

Nice to see that Clemens is doing his own investigation of the steroid reports.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The movie versus the book

I recently saw Citizen Kane again, for the first time in quite a few years, to show it to my kids (one of them anyway).  When I then came across a William Randolph Hearst biography on a Christmas shopping foray to a Barnes & Noble, my interest was piqued.  The book is "The Chief," by David Nasaw, and I strongly recommend it if this sort of thing appeals to you.

I must say, the actual story is considerably more interesting and complex than the one in the screenplay, leaving aside those amazing deep focus shots and the jump cuts.  E.g., at 40 he married, not the President's niece, but a 21-year old chorus girl he had been seeing for five years.  And, as is somewhat better known, the "Susan Alexander" figure actually was the accomplished and independently successful Hollywood comic actress Marion Davies.

I've gotten to 1904, when Hearst, having conquered the newspaper markets in SF & NYC, was seeking the Democratic nomination for President.  Though running as a radical (decades before supporting Joe McCarthy), he differed from Charles Foster Kane in focusing on "trusts" (corporations accused of wielding monopoly power) and union issues, rather than on the likes of Boss Jim Gettys.

An amusing quote I want to share, from an anti-Hearst editorial alarmed by his candidacy:

"It is not a question of policies, but of character.  An agitator we can endure; an honest radical we can respect; a fanatic we can tolerate; but a low voluptuary trying to sting his jaded senses to a fresh thrill by turning from private to public corruption is a new horror in American politics."

Other than in the writing style, why do I almost feel this is about another NY-based Presidential candidate, 104 years later?

Friday, December 21, 2007

On Romney's claim that he saw his father march with Martin Luther King

The Romster has been taking quite a bit of abuse on this one, especially given the added revelation that in 1978 he told the Boston Globe: "My father and I marched with Martin Luther King Jr. through the streets of Detroit."

He has been defending himself by saying that "saw" means "was aware of," not literally "saw," a defense that I gather he will not try to extend to the 1978 claim.

All the same, I am reminded of that bit - is it from Monty Python? I can't quite remember - that goes something like this:

"Is it for the likes of you that I lost my leg in the War?"

"But James, you have both your legs."

"I was speaking metaphorically, you fool!"

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Double standards

It's kind of interesting how the very same Senate Republicans who were threatening to invoke the "nuclear option" and destroy filibustering if the Democrats used it even a tiny bit, have now set the all-time 200-year record for filibusters in a single two-year Congressional term, in just eleven months.

This brings to mind the game they were going to play in California, trying to make it apportion electoral votes by Congressional district while Republican-majority states such as Texas would remain winner-take-all.

Or the fact that, in 2000, they were all set to launch a huge PR campaign if Bush lost the electoral vote but won the popular vote, demanding that the people's will be honored by giving him the 270. Then of course when it went the other way (leaving aside that Bush actually lost both), not a peep was heard of this.

The press plays along with this as well.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Quotations of the year

These are arguably the ten most memorable quotations of the year (U.S. only). I didn't find them myself - seven are from Fred R. Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, as reported on-line in today's New York Times, and three are from an article by James Parker, posted on 12/18 at But well worth passing on:

--1. ''Don't tase me, bro.'' Andrew Meyer, a senior at the University of Florida.

--2. ''I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because some people out there in our nation don't have maps and I believe that our education like such as in South Africa and Iraq and everywhere like such as and I believe that they should our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S. or should help South Africa and should help Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future for us.'' Lauren Upton, South Carolina contestant in the Miss Teen America contest, when asked why one-fifth of Americans cannot find the U.S on a map.

--3. “You must have meant something more intelligent.” Christopher Hitchens, responding to an audience member in Madison, Wisconsin during his book tour for God Is Not Great.

--4. “My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo.” Mitt Romney.

--5. ''I don't recall.'' Alberto Gonzalez (repeatedly).

--6. ''There's only three things he (Rudolph Giuliani) mentions in a sentence: a noun and a verb and 9/11.'' Joseph Biden.

--7. ''I'm not going to get into a name-calling match with somebody who has a 9 percent approval rating.'' Harry Reid, referring to Dick Cheney.

--8. ''(I have) a wide stance when going to the bathroom.'' Larry Craig.

--9. “I’m here with the members of the NRA – would you like to say hello?” Rudolph Guiliani, purporting to answer his wife’s call on his cellphone during a speech.

--10. ''I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history.'' Jimmy Carter.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Evidence from the crime scene

I'd like to see Shadow and Buddy offer an innocent explanation of this little number. They know perfectly well that counter-top visits, and our food, are off-limits. Not that they care particularly, as one can see, but it is something they know.

A bit too convenient

OK, a baseball aside admittedly reflecting my anti-Yankee bias.

First Andy Pettitte is named in the Mitchell report for using human growth hormone. Then he promptly apologizes for using it just twice. So sorry about those two days, he says, "if what I did was an error in judgment." (Interesting use of "if.") Then Mitchell says yup, that's what we heard, he did it twice. Today Mariano Rivera praises him for being so forthright.

Admittedly, Pettitte still has a leaner build than you see on some of the big time abusers. But this seems awfully pat and convenient. He trained with Roger Clemens for years. And he did seem to add a couple of miles to his fastball after having elbow problems in his early 30s. He's reportedly been named by Jason Grimsley.

If he's admitting to two days right off the bat, I'm bidding - oh, maybe 150 times over four or five years. Just a guess.

You know what they say - the opening bid is never the final offer. But that goes for us both.

Worth every penny?

The U.S. Treasury has just issued the 2007 Financial Report of the U.S. Government, available here.

Money quote, from page 32 of the document:

"[The report's measure of the long-term U.S. fiscal gap] totaled approximately $53 trillion as of September 30, 2007 ... an increase of more than $32 trillion from about $20 trillion as of September 30, 2000. This translates into a burden of about $175,000 per American or approximately $455,000 per American household."

Of the entire U.S. historical total, more than 60 percent arose under Bush. A bit of it comes from simple accrual of interest on the preexisting fiscal gap, plus changed assumptions may have had some impact. But the bulk of it comes from massive tax cuts, spending increases, and the Medicare prescription drug abomination.

These figures arguably are grossly under-stated relative to Bush's actual policy, because they ignore the revenue cost of making his tax cuts permanent (as he urges, admittedly it seems ineffectually) and fixing the alternative minimum tax. I couldn't quickly find a contemporaneous estimate for those changes, but the ten-year (2008-2017) estimate for extending the tax cuts and fixing the AMT is $3.5 trillion according to a report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, available here. This report also states that extending the Bush tax cuts would double the expected size of the national debt relative to the economy in 2050.

Just to make the Bush share of the overall fiscal gap more tangible, even without these changes in the current baseline that he is urging, developments on his watch, which overwhelmingly are the fruit of his policy moves, have run up the tab by about $106,000 per American or $275,000 per household.

That is quite a tab for a not very enjoyable bash.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Don't play for money, folks - he's a ringer

On a lighter note, here is a new photo of my cat, Buddy, which has just been posted, but fairly far down the page, at

Mitt Romney and my novel, Getting It

My unpublished comic novel, Getting It, features a convoluted set of battles between the "hero," a character who is a complete phony and hypocrite, and his rival, who is even worse by reason of being a true believer in the values of their workplace, and no phony or hypocrite at all.

One "lesson" of the story in my mind, not that it tries to teach lessons any more than my models Wodehouse and Waugh did, is that there are worse things out there than mere hypocrisy - even total, arrant hypocrisy mixed with grandiose dishonesty and over-wrought self-involvement. I am trying to remind myself of this in order to feel a bit less angry at the scoundrel Mitt Romney.

Beyond trying to read atheists and agnostics out of membership in U.S. society, he is also trying to prompt an angry counter-attack by them so he can pose as the champion of the Bible-thumping sectarians. Of course, he doesn't give a damn about any of this. I suppose he'd be even more dangerous if he actually believed any of this stuff. But then again, how far is he willing to go in this direction for political convenience? Doberman, the scoundrel hero of my novel, is just trying to make partner - he will always be scrabbling and desperate, for all his bravado. Romney aims for the ability to do a lot more harm, and evidently is entirely willing to do it. Maybe my novel's "lesson" shouldn't be over-generalized.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Michael Graetz's tax reform plan

Today I was at a session at Columbia Law School where Michael Graetz presented his tax reform plan, from a forthcoming book. Among his main ideas is to enact a VAT and use some of the revenues to give the income tax a $100,000 exemption amount, thereby eliminating income tax filing for people earning less than that. Such individuals would exit not only the income tax, but generally the filing of annual federal tax returns that base liability on household circumstances. This has implications for differential rates and adjustments for dependents, to the extent that other mechanisms aren't able to pick up the slack.

I've commented adversely on the proposal before at this site, but am prepared to change my tune a bit now. I certainly would welcome the adoption of Graetz's tax reform plan, as well as of any of the main academically posited alternatives, compared to keeping the status quo. I remain a bit concerned that it doesn't do as much as it could for equity as between different households below $100,000. He rightly points out that, politically, discretion to adjust for household circumstances in this range is not always used for the best. And he has tried to address the problem in some ways.

Other proposals, such as the Bradford X-tax, have advantages over the Graetz plan, e.g., in rationalizing business taxation. He rightly points out that they are not likely to be politically feasible. Not clear that his plan is either, but if he manages to get somewhere with it, then more power to him. I'd certainly be a supporter relative to the politically likely alternatives.

The fact that his plan, like the others, seems to me unlikely to be politically feasible, highlights a key dilemma, which is: What do you propose if nothing good seems possible? Actually, I think our political choice problems are even worse than this. Not only is nothing good possible; nothing possible is possible. That is, an unsustainable policy (by definition) can't be sustained, but nothing sustainable can be enacted any time soon.

At least he is trying to find a way to square the circle, and it's not his fault that this is likely to be a hopeless task. I personally think the best political maneuver to grease the skids for adding a VAT to the current mix (which at some point is likely to be unavoidable, even if not one's first choice) is to purport to earmark all of the revenues towards addressing funding shortfalls in social insurance programs. Hopefully as part of lowering the programs' growth rates to be more sustainable. But this is obviously a long way off anyway.

Pending that, I'd be glad if I were wrong and the plan proved to have some political traction. Clearly my preferred alternatives don't.

More bug-swatting (Mitt Romney edition)

Shorter Mitt Romney, from his speech today: Being a Mormon is okay, but being an atheist isn't.

Ugly intolerance fits poorly, to my mind, in a speech requesting tolerance.

Since this raises my ire, let's have some fun with Romney's tax plan, which I had previously not commented on because it seemed just too easy.

According to Romney's website, he has five main tax proposals:

1) "Make the Bush tax cuts permanent." Wow, what an original idea, Mitt! This would cost trillions of dollars and massively augment the long-term U.S. fiscal gap. No serious financing for it, of course.

2)"Lower tax rates for all Americans." I'm glad to see he isn't pandering or anything. Same comment. But these are fake tax cuts, not real ones, as indeed are any tax cuts that are unsustainable. I call it tax-shifting to the future, not tax reduction.

3. "Abolish the death tax." That Orwellian name again - it's an estate tax, not a death tax, since just dying doesn't trigger it. I have come off the fence in recent years to favor some degree of estate or inheritance taxation, largely based on economic research about people's relatively low responsiveness to taxation at the bequest margin. But again, what makes it recklessly irresponsible is the overall U.S. fiscal situation and lack of any meaningful offset.

4. "Savings incentive plan." He proposes to make interest, dividends, and capital gains tax-free for middle class families (which I believe he defines as people with up to $200,000 of income). Another unsustainable tax cut, of course. I do happen to favor progressive consumption taxation as a replacement for the income tax, so arguably this goes in a good direction from that vantage point, the lack of financing aside. But - if people can borrow deductibly (such as through their homes) while investing tax-free, all you are doing is handing them free money for zero net saving. This probably reduces national saving due to the income effect (write them a check for doing no net saving and they have more $$ to spend on consumption).

5. "Our corporate tax rate must be competitive with the rest of the world." Okay, some serious economists agree about this. But again, there is a difference between genuinely cutting tax rates, which requires a fully financed or otherwise sustainable change, and simply shifting them to the future.

I've got it - maybe Mitt is planning an Atheists Tax. After all, he said in his speech that there is no freedom without religion. With a high enough Atheists Tax, this could literally be true, and the fiscal gap addressed to boot.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Iran news

I consider the NIE news the best that I have heard for a very long time. Good news not only about what's happening in Iran, but about the chances of stopping the lunatic Bush Administration rush to war. I had been periodically very worried about this. Now I guess Bush and Cheney are down to the Doonesbury option (from last week's strips), or variants such as freshening up a version of the 1939 Polish "attack" on German border posts.

Quote of the day

This is from Rob Jovanovic, Perfect Sound Forever: The Story of Pavement.

"While not ones to get up to the usual hotel-trashing antics of other bands, Pavement nevertheless received robust coverage of their backstage activities ...

"'We can definitely brag about our Scrabble,' said Malkmus. 'I think we can pretty much take down any other rock band at that.'"