Monday, October 29, 2012

On Coelacanths And Tree Snakes

On Coelacanths and Tree Snakes 

In 1938, a South African fishing boat Captain, Hendrick Goosen, brought in a catch that included a five foot long specimen with a distinct azure-blue coloring, a tri-lobed tail, and paired lobe fins which looked like four small legs.  The Captain gave it to Majorie Latimer, who ran a small local fish and reptile museum.  She, in turn, sent a drawing, along with a description, to Professor J.L.B. Smith, a local fish fanatic, who identified it as a Coelacanth. 

This find was called the “Discovery of the Century” since Coelacanths were supposed to be extinct for 65 Million years.  Remarkably, these living dinosaurs had survived, almost completely unchanged from the Devonian Era. 

Of course, that was the 20th Century, but there are more living dinosaurs than just the Coelacanths. We can find them today embodied in the platforms, and the standard-bearers, of the two major parties.  There’s not a single idea that hasn’t tried over and over again, not a hint of oxygen in the stale sourness that emanates from the campaigns.

Too harsh?  Not really.  As David Brooks (who, despite many public displays of angst, is supporting Romney) wrote last week, “For a certain sort of conservative, tax cuts and smaller government are always the answer, no matter what the situation. For a certain sort of liberal, tax increases for the rich and more government programs are always the answer.”

Brooks is inadvertently putting his finger on something that is something unusual in our history.  We have always been a dynamic political ecosystem,  creating new movements, and even new parties.  But ever since Nixon capitalized on the powerful race and class resentment caused by LBJ’s policies on Civil Rights and the Viet Nam war, the two parties have settled down to a trench warfare, not unlike the India/Pakistan partition in 1947, where millions physically moved to safer ground, but ideology and anger stayed undiluted and tribal. 

The problem with that type of an isolated and enclosed ecosystem is that it loses its ability to adapt to new circumstances.   That leaves it vulnerable to invasive predatory species.  There is a fascinating story in Oliver Sacks’ “Island of The Color Blind” about his visit to Guam.  Sacks is amazed to hear the pervasive natural silence in the forest.  There’s no birdsong on Guam, a former tropical paradise.  That’s because there are no birds.  They have all been eaten after an prolonged invasion of brown tree snakes, who apparently stowed away on ships from the Solomon Islands, and with no natural predators, have decimated native populations.

The GOP has become fertile ground for voracious interest groups; the Norquists, the Scolds, and the Tea Party types.  These folk combine an intense drive for power with a nihilistic contempt for government in general, except when they use it to impose their beliefs on others.  They have entered the ecosystem and are devouring everything in sight, including sometimes their own. 

Democrats, however, are still working with last century’s DNA.  While they aren’t quite the tax-loving liberals described in Brooks’ hyperbolic statement, they still can’t break out of the Great Society shackles.   If some in the GOP simply want to eat everything is sight, the Democrats haven’t grasped the most obvious fact, which is unless you have a global reform of taxes and entitlements, and unless you embrace growth, sooner or later, there won’t be enough of anything for anyone to eat.

That ravaged political Earth has no room for big ideas.  Instead we are left with a tactical conflict where “ground game” and voter suppression substitutes for a compelling narrative. Mr. Obama’s campaign methodically makes the calls and gets out the vote.  The Republicans spin angry little fantasies and try to suppress turnout.  In Indiana’s LaPorte County, the GOP Co-Director of Voter Registration, Donna Harris, waited until her Democratic counterpart went on medical leave and then supervised a purge of 16% of the entire district’s voters, about 13,000 votes.  That she was married to the County’s GOP leader, who was also on the ballot, and that the district was in the heart of Democratic Congressman Joe Donnelly’s district, who just happens to be running for Senate in a close race, I’m sure was just a coincidence.  After painstaking effort, 11,000 voters have been restored, many after being turned away to vote the first time they appeared at the polls. 

Non-adaptive, heavily armored creatures and predators who eat everything in sight.  Not much to get optimistic about when we need creativity and courage.

Perhaps nature can show us the way?

In Guam,  they have tried dropping dead mice packed with Tylenol into the forest cover.  The omnivorous brown tree snake is one of the few snakes that will also eat something they don’t kill.  It’s not yet clear how effective this is, but the practice is considered comparatively safe, since are few other species on Guam that could be tempted by the mouse bait, as the brown tree snakes have already decimated them.

And, in an exquisite bit of irony, creationists have taken to claiming that the prehistoric nature of Coelacanths is proof that evolution is a fraud. 

More credible is the interesting fact that the huge fish, who can grow to six feet and a half feet and nearly 200 pounds,  has only a miniscule brain that occupies only 1.5 percent of its cranial cavity; the rest is filled with fat.

Life imitating art?


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Fisherman's Tale: Mitt and Barack Sprint To The Finish

Fisherman’s Tale: Mitt and Barack Sprint to the Finish

Two weeks to go, three debates down, and our pair of racehorses are thundering down the stretch. 

Last Tuesday, Mr. Obama found his missing flask of espresso and managed to come up with an up-tempo performance which at least righted the listing (or listless) ship of state.  One thing seemed very clear to those of us who watched.  The Obamas and the Romneys will not be double-dating in the foreseeable future.  If you got nothing else out of the 90 minutes (and, as usual, there was a paucity of actual details) you did get to see a very revealing quality shared by both men: the capacity for cold anger. 

So, can we pick the winners and losers in November? Well, there’s an avalanche of polling going on.  If you look at the national polls on October 21, they show a very tight race-essentially a dead heat.  Except for two, the IBD/TIPP tracking poll, which has Obama up by six, and the Gallup tracking poll, which shows Romney up by seven.  Since Gallup is widely known and respected, Gallup gets all the attention, and it appears that Mitt is running away with it.  Except, maybe he’s not.

Looking deep into the Gallup numbers, you find that what really counts are “likely voters.”  So, what’s a likely voter?  Well, it depends on whom you ask, but the key seems to be the polling organization’s attempt to measure intensity and behavior.  The more intense you are (or seem to be, based on your answers to questions they deem critical indicators) the more likely you are to actually vote.  Since elections are only decided by those who show up, and polling organizations want to forecast outcomes, opinions that aren’t expressed in a ballot are essentially irrelevant.

What Gallup tries to do is to predict who will vote based on the 23 different herbs and spices (actually, 7 herbs and spices) that make up a likely voter.  They aren’t any different than any other pollster.  The WSJ/NBC just released a poll that shows it as 47/47 but with Obama having a 5% lead among all registered respondents.  In the that poll, they spoke to 1000 registered voters, and then eliminated the responses of 184 of them.  A quick back of the envelope calculation would lead one to believe that Obama had more than a 15 point lead among the “discarded” respondents-those deemed unlikely to vote. 

Is that a reasonable way to approach things?  Actually, it is, with two qualifiers.  First, the predictive model is based on past behavior as much as it is present intention, and the polling organizations haven’t fully caught up.  The explosion in the use of cell-phones, houses with no landlines, off-hour workers, single parent and non-traditional families, change the very nature of whom you can reach, where, and at what time.  So we have to ask whether the polling organizations are really talking to everyone.

The second is something for which we don’t yet have a good model.  The irrationality index is at an all time high.  Republicans love to say that Obama is the most polarizing President of all time.  He is, because many of them just absolutely hate him, and would frankly do or say anything to see him out of office.  We aren’t talking about the professional politicians for whom every race is simply about winning and who crave the spoils.  This is the gut, visceral reaction that causes perfectly normal people to say and post on line words that they might otherwise be ashamed to utter in any other context.  This intensity makes them likely voters.  Gallup’s tracking poll shows this, in part, in the geographic breakdown of the likely voters.  In three regions, East, West and Midwest, places where the communities are more diverse and have had mixed recoveries, Obama is ahead by a few points.  In the South, he is down by more than twenty points.  This astounding outperformance in the South swamps the other three, more populous regions, and gives Romney his national lead. 

This Southern tilt is fascinating.  Before we go off meandering down the darker alleyways of motivation, we should start with some basics.  On an elemental level, the solid Republican South makes sense. This is a place that is more rural, more religious, more tied to the military and a gun culture, more culturally conservative.  That makes up an important part of expected Southern support for the GOP.

Yet, this level of animus is beyond prediction, particularly because, when Southerners are voting for Romney/Ryan in particular (as opposed, say to McCain or Dubya) they are voting so much against their personal interests.  The South overwhelmingly gets more Federal dollars than it pays in taxes.  It’s home to more seniors.  It collects large farm subsidies.  There are a lot of 47 percenters there.  And, if you squeeze domestic and entitlement spending as much as the Romney/Ryan Plan projects, you would likely seriously hurt a great many Southern communities.  And yet, they flock to the Romney/Ryan banner. 

Before we pin the irrational tail too much on the elephant, let’s not forget it also belongs on the donkey.  This week a group of conservation organizations are considering a big advertising media buy--for ads critical of Mr. Obama.  He hasn’t been good enough for them, so they plan to  chip away at his environmental credentials. Turns out that Mr. Obama may be a conservationist, but he is also a politician, and some compromises are necessary.  Now, one might ask if any of these folk took math in school (Obama-1=Mitt+1).  Perhaps they act this way out of some bizarre desire to turn the entire country into an Ansell Adams’ landscape? 

Are there other losers?  Well, Gene Epstein, the very insightful Von Mises devotee and Barron’s writer of “Economic Beat” thinks Capitalism will lose. There’s very little subtlety in the title of his column this last weekend,  “Trampled in the Presidential Debate:  Adam Smith”.

Epstein ticked off bipartisan apostasies.  Both men massively flunked global trade, particularly on being aggressive with China.  Obama proudly lauded his work in beating back cheap Chinese tires, Romney tried to one up him by promising tariffs everywhere he perceives an unfair advantage over American manufacturers and messing with currency rates. Obama was taken to task for having subsidized wind energy through tax credits, Romney for quickly pandering “I appreciate the wind jobs in Iowa.”  For Mr. Epstein, who is methodical in his reasoning and apolitical, it’s a uncomfortable reminder of a painful reality.  Just as Mr. Obama is as much a politician as an environmentalist, Mr. Romney isn’t really pro-capitalism.  He’s just pro business and pro wealth. Those are not the same things.

All this actual and potential disillusionment leads me to Pushkin's poem, “The Fisherman and the Golden Fish.” In it, an old fisherman and his wife have been living in poverty for many years.  One day, he pulls out a golden fish. The fish pleads for its life, promising any wish in return. The old man, being kindly and modest in his desires, asks for nothing and releases him to the sea. When he returns home and tells his wife about the golden fish, she gets angry and tells her husband to go ask the fish for a new washboard, as theirs is broken.  The fish happily grants this small request. Each day, the wife’s demands grow greater and greater, and each day, the reluctant fisherman goes to ask the Golden Fish for more. Finally, mansions, and jewels, and wealth, and titles, and power are not enough.  She wants to be Ruler of the Seas, and to subjugate the Golden Fish to her absolute will.  When the old man makes this request, the fish ends the cycle of greed by putting the old woman back in her old cottage and giving her back the broken washboard.

You do wonder what happens if all those likely voters get their wish.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Looking For Teddy Roosevelt

Looking For Teddy Roosevelt

Outside the Central Park West entrance to the Museum of Natural History is an equestrian statue of Teddy Roosevelt.  The horse, and the man, appear, in your imagination to be straining to go forward, as TR invariably did. Inside, in the Rotunda, the walls have carved quotations, displaying both his largeness of spirit and his grandiosity.  My favorite is “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.”

We are at one of those moments right now. We have fewer than four weeks before the election; really just a handful of days to decide between two very different men and two very different outcomes for our future.  The polls have been trending Romney ever since he decimated Mr. Obama in the first debate.  But the most startling thing is how appallingly empty the entire exercise has been.  There’s something elemental at work here, a gnawing sense that the men are not equal to the job, that there is emptiness about them both.

The missing piece is nothing more, and nothing less, than character.  It’s not in the campaigns, where puffery and sometimes pure falsehoods seem to be the order of the day.  It’s not in the media, where objectivity has gone out the window in commentary.

No one seems to be focusing on character.  Romney has done one of the most fascinating tap dances in modern political history.  He’s taken advantage of the extreme and visceral nature of the GOP hatred of Obama, and the shrewdness of those party pros that don’t really care about anything other than winning, and begun herringboning his way through his previous positions.  He stonewalled on his taxes and won.  He’s refusing to give the details of his plans for tax reform or entitlement reform, and it seems to be working.  He throws out a vague, unenforceable comfort line that gets big headlines, and then quietly reassures his base that the treasure chest will be open for them after he’s in command.  The conservative commentators who previously were giving him criticism-cum-advice (and trashing Obama) have now fallen into line and merely trash Obama.

As for Obama, for the first time in four years, he seems unsuited for the job.  He was clearly astonished by the ferocious mendacity of Romney II (or III) and seems to have completely lost his voice.  The man who outfoxed and outfought Hillary Clinton and John McCain somehow has been turned into a funhouse mirror image of himself.  And he seems unable, or unwilling to grasp that he has an extremely good chance of being turned out of the White House.   He’s lost the essence of another TR quote, “aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords.”  If Obama wants this, if he truly belives that his way is better for the nation and the world than Mitt’s mid-life crisis style of muscle flexing and over-indulgence in the finer things, than he’s going to have to punch it out with Mitt. 

That’s why the Vice Presidential debate got as much attention as it did.  And for all the hand wringing over Joe Biden’s smirks (“let’s not be beastly to the kindly GOP?”) that’s exactly what the Vice President did to Paul Ryan.  He laid out a vision, liberal though it might be, and challenged Ryan to do better than unsupported assertions of a glorious paradise where everyone will get more, no one will pay more, deficits will disappear, and Romney will stride the world stage like a Colossus.  If only we would rid ourselves of the terrible scourge of Obama.

Joe Biden showed a little joyous passion the other night, and your taste or not, you knew in your gut that he had it, and felt it, in his gut.  TR would have liked the man.

Of course, character isn’t just about getting in someone else’s face.  It’s also about core decency, a willingness to take an unpopular position or tell an unpopular truth.  That’s very hard for a politician, who by instinct runs towards the safety of platitudes and his sideline.  Today, what passes for “truth-telling” is really a deft little trick of telling the other side what they don’t want to hear.  That’s the magic of Paul Ryan.  Conservatives call him brave for regurgitating right-wing wish lists, just as they nominate Scott Walker for beatification for having the “courage” to use the powers of his office to benefit his friends and take from his opponents.

So, what is character?  It’s not perfection.  We don’t really expect our leaders, even the great ones, to be perfect.  FDR had a mistress.  TR tended to rush, headlong, often rashly, into dangerous situations.  Lincoln effectively suspended key portions of the Constitution.  There is a fascinating article by Henry Wiencek in Smithsonian Magazine, “The Dark Side of Jefferson” about Jefferson the slaveholder.  In the popular mind, Jefferson fought for the abolition of slavery to be included in the Declaration of Independence.  That he did, but for all the agonizing he ostensibly went through, in practice, Jefferson turned out to be a man of dollars and cents, keeping on a particularly brutal overseer because the “gentleman’s” methods meant a good return on invested capital.  And, in a particularly ironic twist, he turned down a large bequest from Thaddeus Kosciusko which would have paid Jefferson to free some of his (Jefferson’s) slaves.  Jefferson thought that the slaves were a better investment than the cash.  In contrast, Washington’s will provided for complete manumission.

So, character is not moral purity.  Rather, the predicate for the greatness TR sought, as we all should, is a profound desire to do good, and to have the courage of your own convictions to keep fighting for them, even at the risk of losing. “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”

Mr. Obama, Romney’s got you on the ropes.  If you believe in something, now is the time to dig down and show that fighting for a principle is more important than just fighting to win.

“A man's usefulness depends upon his living up to his ideals insofar as he can.”

TR had it right.  Character is the decisive factor.  Get on it, Sir.  Time’s wasting.


Monday, October 8, 2012

Travels In Mitt-Land

Travels In Mitt-Land

If you happened to be out of the country last week, in a place that had no fax, phone, TV, radio, or Internet (or even twitter), you missed the complete demolition derby that was the first Presidential Debate.

Mitt demolished Barack.  Mr. Obama committed no gaffes, except perhaps showing up.  He also barely showed a pulse, much less put up a credible argument.  The carnage was so bad that the video may have to be rated R, it being too cruel to be shown to children.

If we were to go through every missed opportunity, every failed or inadequate response, we would merely be taking a rake to already well-ploughed ground. Obama has been torched by everyone, from the gleeful Right, to the despairing Left, and everyone in between.  That Romney flipped on positions merely a few weeks old, and sometimes simply lied, is completely immaterial. 

If you look at Intrade, as of the date of this writing, Mr. Obama is still deemed to have an edge on Mr. Romney, as does the Iowa Electronic Markets, but the national polls seem to show otherwise-most are even and a Pew Poll gives Romney a lead.  The wisest commentators and analysts now seem to think Mr. Romney will win, and the question is not so much if, but the size of the margin.  There is also the question of the impact down-ballot, Senate, House, and various state positions.  With the rout that occurred in 2010, the GOP now stands poised to attain the power to impose their will at most state levels and across the Federal spectrum. By this time next year, we have a very good chance to enacted see what are now merely wild fantasies of the Right.

But really, what is the golden land that Romney will be leading us to?  Is it Akin-Land, a place where women are delicate little flowers who need a man’s guidance (when they are not being temptresses)? Is it Bachmann-Land, redolent with the pungent odor of paranoia? Maybe it’s Newt’s Moon base, a place of big ideas and no Social Security?  Santorum-Land, with its Hester Prynne-inspired social policy?  Or maybe it’s the world of Congressman Paul Broun, Republican of Georgia, and a member of the House Science Committee, who said that evolution and the big bang are “lies straight from the pit of Hell.”

All these people are part of the gorgeous mosaic that is the modern Republican Party, but I don’t think they define Mitt-Land. The Akins, and Bachmanns, and Newts, and Ricks, are merely part of the means to carry us to Mitt-Land; they are not their ends.  And, they will be repaid for the efforts, in script that Mitt doesn’t care about: social issues and small-minded things like killing off Big Bird.  But they don’t drive Mitt.   

That is because Mitt-Land is a place without an ideology beyond money, power, and influence.  Mitt-Land is the Shangri-La of the aristocracy.  Mitt, regardless of what he says in the debate, will deliver for his people.  The rest of us, whether we know it or not, are just along for the ride.

Thomas Donlan, in his Editorial Commentary for Barron’s, has written two superb pieces over the last several weeks.  In the first, “Where the Money is.” he correctly points out that real tax reform requires the closing of every single loophole, preference, subsidy, etc.  Politicians use the tax code to coddle those they like, and punish those they don’t.   They like homeownership, so we have a mortgage deduction.  They like private equity, so we have “carried interest” and special treatment of capital gains.  More than a third of the revenue that would be collected under today’s nominal tax rates is given back to favored taxpayers.

That, of course, is the dirty little secret of Mitt’s tax returns.  It’s not that he cheated.  He pays lower taxes because he qualifies for most favored nation treatment, and believes he, and people like him, are entitled to it.  Friends of Mitt may gussie it up with synthetic terms like “job creators”, or rail against needless government regulation, but at the end of the day, they are our aristocrats, and they expect it.   That might sound unkind, but it is true.  200 plus years of being catered to has done nothing to disavail them of that notion.

Of course, Mitt’s people are not the only ones who are entitled.  So is the public sector worker who goes out on full disability while playing golf five times a week.  Or the oil company taking billions in subsidies.  Or the recipients of Social Security and Medicare, receiving benefits far in excess of the taxes paid in.  Or the owner of a professional sports team, with his hand in the taxpayer pocket for a new stadium and infrastructure.  The two parties may pick their sides, but in the end, it is still the same thing-moving money around.  And more and more, it’s moving borrowed money around.  Neither party, and neither candidate, is truly willing to try omnibus structural reforms at a time we desperately need it. And, if you haven't noticed it, not one single peep about making hard choices at the last debate.  Everyone would continue to get everything they did before, none more, none less, but through some alchemy, the pot would grow.

As Donlan puts it in “The Not So Great Debate”

“Those who listened attentively could understand that President Barack Obama believes in the ability of government to invest our money for future growth and the well-being of citizens, especially those who did not start off with lots of natural or parental advantages. It was equally clear that challenger Mitt Romney believes in the ability of citizens to manage their own affairs, as long as government stays out of the way, except to pick up the pieces.”

There’s really not all that much difference, is there?  Whether it’s Granny, or Goldman Sachs, the taxpayer will cover them.  It’s just a question of managing the extremes.

So, where is Mitt-Land?  Well, I had the chance to travel there recently.  In my day job, I am an attorney.  I was involved in a modestly complicated transaction involving several parties. In connection with it, we all met in a conference room in a lovely town listed in Forbes “America's Most Expensive ZIP Codes.”  Needless to say, I wore a nice suit and my best shoes, freshly shined.  Everyone was very cordial, lunch was offered and ordered, all very comme il faut.  One of other attorneys at the table informally mentioned how well he and I had worked together, often in the evenings, even to the point of emailing me during the debate to rib me.  He said he was a Romney supporter.  There was brief moment of quiet as seven exceeding well-groomed heads set on seven exceedingly well-dressed torsos swiveled in my direction. 

A Democrat?  I swallowed my Diet Coke.

That was Mitt-Land.  Should I have offered to have the upholstery cleaned?