Monday, February 23, 2009

Washington Ins and Outs

Every January 1, The Washington Post's  Style section runs a silly, light page of what in the new year is "in" and what is "out." Every January an administration changes reporters in Washington get weeks of another bit of silliness: who is "in" and "out" of the power loop.

Everyone knows by then who has been elected. But I'm thinking of the folks who emerged last December from eight-year hibernation to play musical chairs for one of the 3,000 to 5,000 top noncareer, nonelected appointed staff posts. They come in one of five varieties:
  • The Early Birds -- They vanished into the Obama bubble in December or early January and unless you have official business to conduct with them, fuhgeddaboudit!

  • The Puffinbirds -- They have literally 15 seconds of fame and hint at what they would tell you if they could, but they're just performing their one-shot emergency deed so the Early Birds can carry out new policy "X." They know where some bodies are buried, but they're utterly dispensable technocratic Mr. Fix-Its with no real power and no real secrets.

  • The Screechers -- They're quotable and talk in vivid terms about issues from a perspective compatible with that of the Obama Administration, but they weren't invited to the party and they haven't heard from any of their longtime friends who now work in the White House.

  • The Hangdogs -- The loyal supporters who slaved in other Democratic administrations but since settled into comfortable lobbying, academic or even -- gasp! -- out-of-the-Beltway activities. No one is talking to them, even though they know countless fascinating background details.
  • The Cheshires -- They sometimes look similar to the Hangdogs but are really late-developing Early Birds. They're sitting quietly biding their time, sure their turn is coming. If you don't know who they are, no one will tell you.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Barack Blair or Tony Obama?

A contrarian blog by my cyberfriend Alex Fear raises the issue, as seen from Britain, that perhaps the canonization of St. Obama the Elephant Slayer has gone a bit too far. Alex, who is politically much too far to my right, goes so far as to suggest that Obama is our Tony Blair.

Funny, but I thought Blair was a British Bill Clinton, someone willing to draw on union support during elections, without batting an eyelash as he subsequently stabbed them in the back (need I spell out NAFTA and New Labour for you?).

Obama, in contrast, is probably the first president on record to win an election on the shoulders of millions of donors of no more than a few $30 checks -- rather than corporate and special interest "bundles" worth lots more. He agrees with labor, but doesn't owe them.

As for the many Clintonites in the new administration, the folks who in the past gave us no health reform, a regressive and pauperizing diminishment of public aid, without any real checks on corporate power, I am glad that they are ultimately not in charge. Obama appears to be unusually his own man.

An eloquent orator, he's also aware of the dire need to lower expectations, which is my explanation for his relatively flat inaugural speech. In sum, I see Obama as a very cool and controlled individual with a few very clear goals in mind who is a virtuoso in the art of persuasion and leadership.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Goodbye to Peter and Paul

The German film Goodbye to Lenin, a sensitive and humorous look at an end of an era, recently summoned to mind not the end of Communism, but the end of Christianity as I once knew it.

In the film, a committed East German Communist woman goes into a coma just as the Berlin Wall is falling in 1989. She wakes up during German reunification. Her doctor tells advises that she should be kept calm. The hitch: she thinks her beloved Honecker regime is still in power.

In my life, there was once a boy who once experienced ecstasy upon having the eucharist placed on his tongue, a young man who -- absent celibacy -- might have become a priest, an adult catechist who told quibbling pre-teens they would be excused from the Sunday Mass obligation if they found themselves literally in the bind of the guy on the classroom crucifix.

But, yes, that boy sinned, that young man doubted and that adult ultimately gave up a lifetime of pretending to be committed to what he wasn't. Committed Christians, like committed Communists, were always rare, indeed probably nonexistent.

At this thought I stumble upon the always aged Br. O'Connor, whom we boys called "the mummy" in the Irish Christian Brothers school I attended. He was unchanged in the 1990s, last I saw him.

If he lived through the recent years of shame and a Nazi pope, what did he think, after all those years of loyal service to his order, going from Ireland to Argentina to teach rich ranchers' sons? How did that life end up squaring with the man from Galilee? Was it a failure to watch a world turn its back on everything to which his life was devoted?

Fare well, Simon Peter and Paul of Tarsus! It was all for naught.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Episcopal Symptoms

Sunday, as a favor to a friend, I went to an Episcopal church I had attended in the 1980s, located about ten blocks north of the White House. To my great disappointment, its peculiarly Episcopal symptoms of the terminal illness affecting Christianity convinced me of the relative wisdom of my current apostasy and agnosticism.

First, of course, the church was near empty at the mid-morning second service of the day, typically the best attended. They'd disguised it with the oldest church trick in the book: removal of pews. But the church still looked empty.

Second, the black female homilist was a walking, talking Republican advertisement against affirmative action. It wasn't bad enough that she read her flat, uninspiring and derivative sermon. She simply could not read! I'm not kidding. The words and their pronunciation were entirely foreign to her, although she spoke with an accent as American as apple pie.

Third, there were a slew of announcements by church committee heads. All expressed that false American Protestant cheer ("ha, ha") to signal the good, clean fun of a book and CD sale or the fulfillment of hearing teens' "profound" questions to the church's seminarian about his trip to the Military Republic of Kumbaya, where distressing things are happening. They all made a pitch for more volunteers since, from the look of things, they were the only members of their activities -- and no wonder.

The rector (not the homilist) was the parish's second female in that position, not the elegant former actress I had had a hand in selecting, but one who made an earnest Episcopal try to sound horsey and look dowdy, all reinforced by robust bursts of entirely forced laughter.

Let's not leave out the after-service coffee and its swarm of men with bejewelled ears and tones borrowed from their mothers.

No wonder the Episcopal Church is falling apart.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Geithner: Too Many Zeroes

A better idea than the Tim Geithner plan to lend trillions to the financial sector would be to make the financiers pay. I mean, really pay. From  their banks, their companies and their pockets. For once.

The very same bank that on this very day would charge you more than 5% interest on a 30-year fixed rate mortgage for a home (assuming you offer your first-born child as collateral) can borrow the money from the Federal Reserve -- that's you and me -- for 0.5%. You knew that, right?

They've been making a killing all our lives off our tax money.

So why not sell their houses, cars, offices, fancy office furniture and office bars, yachts and jets,  golf courses, the jewelry they've given their wives and mistresses, and so on and on and on? Then, why not throw them in jail and toss the key when it turns out that selling everything is not nearly enough to repay us?

After that, let's nationalize the business of lending and borrowing and never let any financial shark play with our money ever again.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bama Got Spine

Did you miss President Barack Obama's swat at the Republican gnats at the press conference last night?
I suppose what I could have done is started off with no tax cuts, knowing that I was going to want some, and then let them take credit for all of them. And maybe that's the lesson I learned.
The message I get is: No more Mr. Nice Guy, Repubs. I gave you what you wanted and you threw it in my face. See if I do that again.

It's so refreshing to see a Democratic Party leader who has a spine.

Now if only Congress would get rid of Majority "Leader" Harry (Jellyfish) Reid and Speaker Nancy (Can't Count Votes) Pelosi ...

Monday, February 09, 2009

Neither Rude nor Wrong

Pit good manners against a thought-out moral standard and I'll always choose the latter.

In the play A Man for All Seasons, which chronicles Sir Thomas More's refusal to accept the putative children of Anne Boleyn as legitimate heirs to the throne, the question is put this way:
DUKE OF NORFOLK: But damn it, Thomas, look at those names.... You know those men! Can't you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?

THOMAS MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?
Something like this arose when, in the context of a conversation about the upbringing of boys as opposed to that of girls, I mentioned a teenage boy who, on principle, had declined girls' invitations to bed. My interlocutors, two middle class American women, cringed at my allegedly "inappropriate" talk of sex, without ever quite citing a principle.

Indeed, what principles? Both are of tepid, Episcopalian upbringing, a worldview in which purity is wearing white gloves. Yet both had the effrontery of agreeing with each other as they shared the laughter of female camaraderie -- Norfolk's fellowship -- that I had been "inappropriate."

In the name of what morals was I at fault for telling of a boy who acted on a matter of conviction that did not meet with the approval of peers? One need not agree with the boy's views to admire his moral courage.

I could not get a response philosophically sharper than the edges of a jellyfish. Impropriety seemed to consist only of whatever feels edgy. Propriety seemed to amount to a mannerly anomie of studied indifference.

Manners be damned.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Efficiency vs. Well-being

Should society be primarily an efficient arrangement or should it aim to promote the well-being of its members? If it's efficiency you favor, then go ahead, lay off as many workers as you wish so long as you can still provide the goods and services demanded by paying consumers. However, if it's the general welfare you're concerned with, get ready to accept some inefficiencies.

This is the fundamental debate underlying key policy decisions: Should we stimulate the economy? Should we subsidize arts, education or public transportation? Should we spend resource on people unlikely to produce something of equivalent value?

I'd argue that, at heart, human beings are fundamentally inefficient. Let's do the return on investment (ROI) math.
  1. Most human beings take about 22-23 years of utter subsidization -- infancy, parenting and schooling -- at a cost of $125,000 to $250,000, depending on household income level, not counting college.
  2.  Add college: from about $40,000 to $200,000 for a 4-year undergraduate degree.
  3. So society has invested between $125,000 and $450,000 on each person before they have produced a single widget or service of any economic value.
  4. Then, let's assume that for about 40-45 years this person works. 
  5. Subtract from this person's income his or her living expenses, then ask, at age 65, has society recovered $125,000-$450,000, adjusted for inflation?
  6. Wait! From age 65 to whatever (100?), as a norm human beings go back to being non-productive resource consumers; in most cases, they end up being subsidized by someone else. So subtract what is spent in those years. Do we still have a profitable ROI?
So, you see, human beings are inherently inefficient. Let's get rid of them, shall we?

Monday, February 02, 2009

Toothaches, famines and other minor mishaps

The paradox of which I am fondest is the notion that my toothache is always worse than a famine in India. In that spirit, I'm also aware this week that my cold is much more severe than the illness that has gripped the economy. Still as events flutter past me I want to put my own corrective stamp.

OK, so Daschle is thankfully out, but what's with cabinet appointees who can't do their taxes? (And I blame Daschle because he was asked about taxes and he said there were no problems.)

And Repubs, hey, the stimulus bill is not perfect (I would put 100% into food stamps and unemployment compensation), but without a stimulus package ... we're in deep, deep, deep (did I say deep?) trouble.

Interesting how Papa Nazinger listens to Angela Merkel. The Vatican is now demanding that the British flake whose excommunication was revoked recant his Holocaust denial. (Tidbit learned from Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me: Bishop Richard Williamson, who denies Jews were gassed, also hates The Sound of Music.)

Oh, and great going Kadima and Labour governing coalition of Israel! Looks like Likud will bring a conservative sweep in the coming elections and even Tony Blair is talking of Hamas at the negotiation table (which was not on the horizon before the latest adventure) !!!!

Lastly, turning to local matters, the recurrent motorcades in and out of the White House seem lots less annoying now, even though they are as noisy and flashy and cumbersome as ever.

And that's the news from Cecilieaux's Cave.