September 29, 2012

Kennedy Center Honors not vibrant enough

The Kennedy Center Honors are an annual orgy of self-congratulation aimed at the PBS pledge drive demographic. This year's award winners, for example, include David Letterman, Dustin Hoffman, ballerina Natalia Makarova, Led Zeppelin, and old bluesman Buddy Guy.  (You can see the marketing logic: "Zep will bring in the big-giving white male 45-65 demo, but they are white, so we've got to find some old black bluesman to give an award to, too.")

Not surprisingly, nobody at the Kennedy Center noticed they weren't handing out enough awards to meet their implicit Latino quota. From Washington Post:
Michael M. Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, apologized for strong language that he used in a recent tense conversation with Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, when Sanchez criticized the lack of Latino artists receiving Kennedy Center Honors. 
“I am writing to apologize for the language I used during our telephone call. It was an unfortunate choice of words, and I deeply regret using them in frustration during our conversation,” Kaiser wrote ... 
Sanchez has previously quoted Kaiser as saying “f--- yourself” and abruptly hanging up the telephone when Sanchez pressed his point in the Sept. 14 conversation. 
Kaiser told The Washington Post last week that he had felt upset during the conversation because he understood Sanchez to be insinuating that he is a racist. ...
“Much of my career has been spent working with artists of color,” Kaiser said in the letter. “I have been passionate about presenting excellence and div­ersity in artistic and educational programming, and Latino arts and programs have enjoyed a dynamic presence.” 

A vibrant presence too, no doubt.

Here are some Kennedy Center Honoree demographics from the Washington Post earlier this year:
Total number of male honorees in the history of the honors: 133
Total number of female honorees: 52
Number of years in which only one woman was an honoree: 20
Total number of African American honorees in the history of the honors: 39 ...

Here's the complete list.

You'll notice that this earlier WaPo article on demographics didn't bother to count up the number of Hispanics, either.

Basically, white people don't want to employ black people, they want to give them awards, and vice-versa for Mexicans.

Art that actually shocks

The New York Times has been running a long self-congratulatory series of essays, tied to the upcoming 100th anniversary of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, called "Shock Value" about art that shocks in which various culture mavens talk about how they got over their bourgeois hangups to appreciate this or that now approved movie or painting. 

But what about unapproved movies? 

In this century, objectively speaking, the most shocking movies to the Establishment, as measured in efforts to kill them, were likely The Passion of the Christ and Idiocracy. (Consider how the studios and media marketed Borat v. tried to drown Idiocracy like a kitten.) 

But, honorable mention should be made of a 2009 movie that was so gut-punch shocking that almost nobody noticed it, the plot was so far outside the realm of acceptable thought: Disgrace, an adaptation of the 1999 novel that won J.M. Coetzee the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002, and caused him to flee South Africa for safety in Australia after the ruling African National Congress objected to his Nobel. John Malkovich played a South African professor who is powerless to prevent his lesbian daughter from being gang-raped and then incorporated as a junior wife into a black peasant family. 

Mass transit v. class transit in L.A.

It's widely believed there is no mass transit in Los Angeles, at least not since G.M. conspired with Judge Doom to junk all the beloved trolley cars that rapidly whisked locals thru traffic. (Over traffic? Under? Don't worry, the details of how the street cars of yore worked, or didn't, aren't important). Of course, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was made by people who take their $80,000 cars to go to the dry cleaner, and couldn't imagine that anyone takes the ubiquitous buses anywhere.

Over the last few decades, there has been a lot of effort and expenditure to build some kind of a rail (or at least busline -- not bus, busline) transit network in Los Angeles. For example, you can now get from downtown LA to LAX merely by taking three different forms of rail and a shuttle bus (not a bus, a shuttle bus).

By this point, rail transit in LA can be a fun adventure, especially for tourists with a day to kill. For example, if you are staying at a hotel in Pasadena, you can get to downtown LA on the light rail Gold line and then up to Universal Studios by the heavy rail subway Red line, followed by a steep walk up the hill. The only problem is that you are then at Universal Studios. (If I had all the money in the world, I would sponsor a free outdoor showing of Idiocracy at Universal Citywalk to see if anybody gets the joke.)

Mass transit is also good for people going out drinking. Last winter I overheard an Armenian retail clerk explaining to a Mexican retail clerk that a DUI now will cost you about $10,000 all told. Listen to your Armenian pal, I wanted to exclaim They understand about money.

The question I have had is whether middle class Angelenos are using rail to commute.

As you can see from the map, you can now go anywhere ... except for the huge chunk of the left side of the map that represents the Westside, which is where most of the money and good jobs are. In theory, Westside liberals are all in favor of rail transit, except in practice they don't seem to either use it or want others using it near them.

Rail lines now go to Pasadena and Hancock Park, the traditional old money WASP capitals of Southern California, but not to Beverly Hills or Santa Monica. Back in 1986, the feds were offering to help build a subway down Wilshire Blvd., but Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) blocked it, so the Purple Line peters out in Koreatown, next to Hancock Park.

Now, there is much talk about building the Subway to the Sea (or at least to Veterans Hospital in Westwood, which is merely 4.5 miles from the beach, but let's not be picky). It seems to be held up at present by parents at Beverly Hills High School who have been making videos warning of vast fireballs erupting from the subway.

And there are no plausible plans yet for a north-south Westside rail route paralleling the 405 (San Diego) Freeway (when you read about various Carmageddons, that's the 405: in other words, this route is extremely busy and full of Important People). A north-south line running from the San Fernando Valley south past LAX would finally make it an actual network rather than a variety of gestures, but I wouldn't bet more than even odds on that crucial line being begun and finished in my lifetime.

The question with mass transit in Los Angeles is one of class transit. The poor have always ridden mass transit, and the poor we shall always have with us. But higher classes have always taken their cues from the top. In Los Angeles, the top people have always attempted to live as inaccessibly as possible. Last May, for instance, I looked up as President Obama's Marine Corps One helicopter droned overhead on one stage of his labyrinthine passage to a fundraiser at George Clooney's house in Fryman Canyon. Even if you are President, you can't get to Clooney's house easily.

If your fondest career hope is that Steven Spielberg's personal assistant calls you up and invites you over to Steve's house in Pacific Palisades to talk about that idea you have, you'd better have a car because you can't get to his house any other way. And it better be a nice car to park in his curving driveway because you don't want to look like some kind of a loser. And similar thinking goes for all the people hoping to get invited to the house of somebody who is hoping to get invited to Spielberg's house, and on down the line.

Los Angeles's car culture is much derided, but as James Q. Wilson pointed out, it made Los Angeles far more ethnically laid back than East Coast cities. Growing up in L.A., he was used to people being blissfully isolated from each other in their cars, meeting up with friends at chosen spots. When he got to Harvard, he couldn't believe the territorialism and street-level ethnic friction of the Boston area. Why do the Irish always want to fight? wondered the Irish Catholic Wilson.

For the last 15 years, the pride of the LA rail system has been the Red Line, which runs from Union Station downtown through Hollywood to North Hollywood in the east San Fernando Valley. This is "heavy rail" -- it has its own right-of-way and doesn't stop for cross-traffic. At North Hollywood, the Red Line connects to the Orange Line, a bus system across the middle of the San Fernando Valley that has its own right of way down a disused railroad spur (but still gets held up by intersections). There has been a lot of construction of medium rise apartments of fairly expensive nature around the terminus in North Hollywood, combined with an attempt to turn the Lankershim and Magnolia area into an Arts District with comedy clubs and the like. By L.A. standards of city planning, it seems to be pretty reasonable.

The subway endpoint is in a vast area of middle class single family homes in the $400,000 range (along with a huge number of lower class apartments). There is a large parking lot at the subway station for Valleyites to park their cars while working over the hill.

So, who takes the Red Line to work? Do middle class Angelenos take the subway?

Last Friday evening I decided to count subway passengers by class. I watched a large crowd get off the Red Line at 5:45 pm in North Hollywood. I scanned the commuters looking for people dressed as if they were coming home from a white collar office job. I looked only at what men were wearing because their class fashion statements are easier for me to understand. I counted each male commuter wearing Business Casual or more formal attire: in other words, trousers (e.g., khaki Dockers) rather than jeans or shorts; a buttonfront or polo shirt rather than a t-shirt; and some kind of non-gym shoe (soft leather shoes were fine as long as they made some attempt to look non-athletic).

I estimate about 1,000 to 2,000 people got off the train and streamed past me, probably half were male and the vast majority were adults. Out of those 500 to 1,000 men, I counted one man in a suit, one other in a necktie, and four guys wearing khaki pants or other business casual, for a grand total of six men dressed as if they were coming from the office. That's somewhere around 1%.

I also noticed two middle aged Jewish guys dressed in shorts who walked by holding what looked to be an intelligent conversation. Maybe there were some other guys with great jobs where dressing like a slob is de riguer, but frankly, everybody else struck my eye as prole.

It could well be that two or even three times that percentage of men getting off the subway were non-prole. But what does that put us at? Approaching 5%?

So, a couple of unsurprising conclusions:

- Yup, L.A. has a lot of proles.
- Nope, non-prole Angelenos above about 25 aren't in any hurry to associate with the proles on the subway. It's still going to be a car culture for a long, long time.

September 28, 2012

Why is Nakoula Bacile Nakoula even in America in the first place?

In the comments, wren writes:
I am coming around to the conspiracy theory that Nakoula Basseley Nakoula [supposed producer of supposed cause of murder of U.S. ambassador in Libya] may not be a Copt, or the video thing was a set-up to rile people up, paid for by the people who took advantage of it. 
Walid Shoebat proposed this due to Nakoula's partnership with Shoebat's Muslim terrorist cousin. 

And if you can't trust a Shoebat, who can you trust? Basically, Nakoula and Shoebat's cousin sound like Southern California crank dealers who have various lines of fraud as well. Shoebat's cousin might be connected to some scary organizations in the Muslim world. (Keep in mind that the dividing line between terrorist, freedom fighter, and gangster can be awfully hazy.) Nakoula is clearly some kind of career criminal, although probably more toward the dishonest than violent pole.
Also, his biography nicely hits on some themes Steve brings up on occasion.

Hey, it's more than an occasion: Men with Gold Chains is a continuing series here. But, here's the original article on my jury service in 2006, involving an Iranian used car dealer whose reputation was so bad he'd been banned for life from the used car business (!) and still managed to steal $2 million from the state of California and flee back to Iran.

Back to Nakoula Nakoula:
From Wikipedia: 
Nakoula was born in Egypt,[1] and in an Arabic interview with Voice of America's Radio Sawa, he stated that he had graduated from the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt.[9] Nakoula later moved to Southern California where he once owned a gas station. He resided in Cerritos, in Los Angeles County, California[10][11][12] until September 2012.[2]
According to the Associated Press, "Nakoula struggled with a series of financial problems".[13] In 1996, a lien for $194,000 was filed against Nakoula's gas station for unpaid taxes, penalties, and interest dating from 1989 to 1992.[12] A $106,000 lien was filed against him in 1997.[13] He filed for bankruptcy protection in 2000,[12][14] owing several banks a total of $166,500, but later failing to make payments under the bankruptcy plan.[12][15] A $191,000 tax lien was filed against him in 2006.[13] 
The Daily Beast reported that Nakoula was arrested by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in 1997 after being pulled over and found to be in possession of ephedrine, hydroiodic acid, and $45,000 in cash;[12] he was charged with intent to manufacture methamphetamine.[11] He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in 1997 to one year in Los Angeles County Jail and three years probation. According to the Los Angeles County District Attorney, he violated probation in 2002 and was re-sentenced to another year in county jail.[16]  
In 2010, Nakoula pleaded no contest to federal charges of bank fraud in California. Nakoula had opened bank accounts using fake names and stolen Social Security numbers, including one belonging to a 6-year-old child,[3] and deposited checks from those accounts to withdraw at ATMs.[17] The prosecutor described the scheme as check kiting, "You try to get the money out of the bank before the bank realizes they are drawn from a fraudulent account. There basically is no money," she said.[4] Nakoula’s June 2010 sentencing transcript shows that after being arrested, he testified against an alleged ring leader of the fraud scheme, Eiad Salameh,[18] in exchange for a lighter sentence.[19][20][21] He was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison, five years probation, and ordered to pay $794,701 in restitution.[4][22] He was sent to prison, then to a halfway house,[23] and was released from custody in June 2011. A few weeks later, he began working on Innocence of Muslims.[24][23] Conditions of Nakoula's probation include not using aliases and not using the Internet without prior approval from his probation officer.[25][26] On September 27, 2012, US federal authorities stated Nakoula was arrested in Los Angeles for suspicion of violating terms of his probation and he is being held without bail.[27] Prosecutors stated that some of the violations included making false statements regarding his role in the film and the use of the alias Sam Bacile.[28]

I like one of Nakoula Nakoula's other aliases: "P.J. Tobacco" -- apparently, with the quality of people he defrauds or sells meth to, that name passes muster.

Whether or not he was in the pay of Muslim extremists to act as an agent provocateur or not, this guy's entire life in America screams Undesirable Alien.

But that's not what everybody in the respectable press has been talking about. The Designated Topic has been around whether the need for globalist multicultural sensitivity has made certain 18th Century words on a piece of paper obsolete in our instantly connected globalized word. Can we really afford to still have a First Amendment when we need a Humanitarian Empire in Libya? (E.g., the NYT mulls "Free Speech in the Age of YouTube."

There has been virtually no debate over why is this guy in the country anyway. Is he a citizen? Does he have a green card? Why wasn't he deported during his long chain of crimes? If he is a citizen, what breakdowns in the system allowed for him to become one? How does the American immigration system let in the dregs of the whole world like Nakoula?

Our reigning mindset doesn't let us ask any such obvious questions. What's more important to talk about is how you and I better dummy up to avoid offending mobs in some country Obama decided to bomb on a whim.

You know how there's a National Transportation Safety Board that investigates airline crashes? It's independent of the Federal Aviation Administration and other organizations to prevent conflicts of interest. The idea is that figuring out why one airliner went down is important not just in that particular case but to figure out how to prevent future airliner crashes.

What we need is a National Immigrant Screwup Board that investigates how Nakoula, Sirhan Sirhan, the 9/11 terrorists, Aunt Zeituna, the Egyptian terrorist who murdered two Jews at the El Al counter at LAX on July 4, 2002, and other notorious immigrant screwups got in the country in the first place and didn't get kicked out.

Magner and disparate impact for thee, not for me

Roger Clegg writes at National Review:
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court was poised to hear oral arguments in the fully briefed Magner v. Gallagher, a case presenting the issue of whether a “disparate impact” cause of action may be brought under the Fair Housing Act. Now, the theory in disparate-impact causes of action is that someone can be held liable for racial discrimination if he uses a selection device that leads to a racial imbalance, even if the device is neutral on its face, in its intent, and as applied. In the housing context, for example, rejecting mortgage applicants because of their credit history can be challenged if this results in a higher percentage of blacks than Asians being turned down, and it then becomes up to the lender to prove to a jury some degree of “business necessity” for his practice. The Obama administration is a great fan of this approach to civil-rights enforcement, and it was quite upset that the Supreme Court might rule it illegal. So it successfully leaned on the City of St. Paul, a petitioner in the suit, to withdraw its case from the Supreme Court.  

The Magner case stems from the city of St. Paul deciding to crack down on slumlords by enforcing already written laws and regulations in the housing code (e.g., fire safety). The slumlords got together and sued the city for racial discrimination because most of their tenants are black, and they argued that enforcing the laws would have disparate impact on blacks because that would raise the slumlords' costs, which they would pass on to their black tenants. (I don't know what race(s) the slumlords are.) So, that would be discrimination!

The plaintiffs and defendants split the first two rounds, and the Supreme Court accepted the case.

I imagine the Obama Administration found Magner to be an extremely hot potato. On the one hand, the Roberts Court might use this ridiculous case to do major damage to the legal concept of disparate impact. On the other hand (and this is much more speculative, but it's fun to follow out the logic), the Roberts Court just might have strongly uphold disparate impact, and then started applying the logic of disparate impact to do who knows what damage to liberal interests.

For example, how about the Endangered Species Act, which has a huge disparate impact in reducing the number of blacks and (especially) Hispanics in sophisticated locales by driving up the cost of new developments.

Or, in employment, disparate impact is a huge deal in hiring firemen, but it's a very small deal in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. You might think that being a big city fireman and being a movie set technician are fairly similar jobs: they are among the best blue collar jobs in America in terms of pay and fun. But they are wildly different in terms of discrimination lawsuits. But nobody ever notices. Movie crews look like the LA Fire Department in 1975 -- a whole bunch of competent white guys. You might think that's illegal these days, but the discrimination laws don't apply to Hollywood. Angelina Jolie would not be pleasant to be around after she saw the dailies of what her wrinkles looked like with a cut rate diverse lighting crew.

The Obama Administration likes to occasionally poke at liberal areas like Marin County, but it likes doing it at its own discretion, maybe getting some Awardable Housing units to hand out to allies. You know, that kind of thing. The last thing in the whole world the Obama Administration wanted in an Election Year was the chance of the Supreme Court either cracking down disparate impact or calling its bluff and ordering it to enforce it impartially.

So, the word came down from inside the Obama Administration: make this case disappear:
When the Justice Department’s coercion came to light, two House committees decided to investigate, and what they found is the subject of today’s Journal editorial. It turns out that part of the deal with the City of St. Paul was that the Justice Department agreed not to intervene in a separate, False Claims Act lawsuit alleging that the City had made false certifications to the federal government. That deal was made at the insistence of Civil Rights Division head Thomas Perez and over the objections of the department’s career attorneys in the Civil Division. Oh, and here’s another nugget, not mentioned by the Journal: The false certification was that the city was using federal funds to create jobs for low-income workers of all races, when in fact it was only focused on employing minorities. To Perez, then, it was a win-win deal: He would ensure that the Obama administration could continue to bring disparate-impact lawsuits (which result in politically correct racial discrimination) in exchange for giving the city a pass on its policy of . . . politically correct racial discrimination. Of course, staying out of the False Claims Act suit may have cost U.S. taxpayers over $180 million, according to the House committees, but who says that social justice is cheap? 

September 27, 2012

Justice is served

From the New York Times' breaking news section:
California Man Linked to Anti-Islam Film Ordered Held Without Bond  
5 minutes ago 
California Man Linked to Anti-Islam Film in Custody-Court Spokesman 
5 minutes ago 
California Man Behind Anti-Muslim Film Jailed Over Probation 
5 minutes ago

You can never have enough headlines about this guy getting what's coming to him.

After all, he profaned YouTube. YouTube. Is nothing sacred anymore? Besides, this blasphemer could have screwed up Obama's re-election.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled nonstop Free Pussy Riot coverage.

FDNY passes La Griffe 101

Back in 2007, the Bush Administration sued the Fire Department of New York, which lost 343 men on 9/11, for disparate impact discriminating against blacks and Hispanics by using a firefighter hiring test that asked fairly hard questions about firefighting. Now, the FDNY has finally learned the lesson that La Griffe du Lion pointed out years ago: If you want to please the feds, you can minimize disparate impact (percentage point differential) of the hiring test by making it extremely easy, then hiring randomly. 

From the NY Daily News:
Scores for blacks and Hispanics soar on newly revamped FDNY test  
More than 42 percent of minority-group members earned grade of 97 or higher and likely to be hired by FDNY over next four years 
Blacks and Hispanics scored significantly better on the newly revamped FDNY exam, a shift that could lead to firefighter jobs for a many as 42% of the minority-group test-takers, city officials revealed Tuesday. 
The would-be minority-group firefighters far outscored those who sat for the previous three exams — the results of which were deemed discriminatory and tossed out by a judge. 
Bravest hopefuls who nail a grade of 97 or higher are considered likely to be hired by the FDNY over the next four years. 
Nearly half — 42.3% — of minority-group members who took the test cleared that hurdle, officials said. 
That’s much higher than top-scoring minorities who took the 1999 exam (14%), the 2002 exam (16%) and the 2007 exam (33%). 
The results of all three earlier tests were thrown out by Brooklyn Federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis in response to a 2007 lawsuit from the Justice Department and the Vulcan Society of black firefighters. ... 
The exam’s pass rate was high. Of the 42,231 people who took the test, 40,426 passed with a score of 70 or above. 
FDNY Battalion Chief Paul Mannix, an outspoken critic of the judge’s decision who believes the original lawsuit was bogus, said he still has questions about how the experts scored the exam. 
“On the face of it, I have no confidence in the test and the list that will come of it,” Mannix said.

Now, you might think this could make a good GOP campaign issue, but, of course, it was the Bush Administration that filed the lawsuit against the FDNY in the first place.

Old white people want government to keep its hands off their Medicare

From the Washington Post:
Medicare working to boost Obama in swing states, poll finds
By N.C. Aizenman, Jon Cohen and Peyton M. Craighill, Thursday, September 27, 6:23 AM 
Voters in three critical swing states broadly oppose the sweeping changes to Medicare proposed by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and, by big margins, favor President Obama over Mitt Romney on the issue, according to new state polls by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. 
Among seniors, the issue rivals the economy as a top voting issue, undercutting Romney’s appeal in Florida, Ohio and Virginia. Generally, the more voters focus on Medicare, the more likely they are to support the president’s bid for reelection. 
A focus on Medicare as an issue also blunts potential fallout from Obama’s 2010 health-care reform law. The law remains controversial and is, according to an analysis of these new poll results, a drag on Obama’s reelection prospects. In Florida and Ohio, more voters have “strongly unfavorable” than “strongly favorable” impressions of the health law. 
Sizable majorities of voters in each of these three states — as well as those across the country — say they prefer to keep Medicare as a defined benefits program, rather than moving to a system of fixed payments to seniors to buy coverage from private insurance or traditional Medicare. The “premium support” idea is one featured in the Republican budget proposed by Ryan and backed by Romney. The desire to keep the system as it is peaks at 65 percent in Florida, where more than one in five 2008 voters were age 65 and up. 
Underlying support for not changing Medicare is the widespread belief that the system is working well for today’s seniors. In Florida, 70 percent of all voters say the system is working well — rising to 91 percent of the state’s seniors — and positive assessments of Medicare is nearly as high in the other states. 
Asked whom they trust to deal with the Medicare program, Ohio voters side with Obama over Romney by a 19 percentage-point margin. The president has a 15-point advantage on the issue in Florida and a 13-point lead on it in Virginia. 

Democratic blogger Kevin Drum responds:
Really, it's pretty amazing. Just two years ago, Republicans walloped Democrats in the midterm election, at least partly due to a tsunami of ads accusing them of taking money away from Medicare. And Republicans have been on the receiving end of Medicare attack ads too. So they know perfectly well just how sensitive this issue is and how much damage it can do. And yet, somehow they convinced themselves that Paul Ryan had some kind of magic fairy dust that would make the American public sit up and suddenly say to themselves, "He's right! We do need to turn Medicare into a voucher!" 
I dunno. The entire Republican Party seems to have fallen into some kind of Svengali-like trance, convinced that Paul Ryan, alone among men, can deliver the bracing tonic that will convince voters to do away with program benefits they've loved and supported for decades. The self-delusion here is inexplicable.

Okay, but what else are the Republicans allowed to put forward other than a libertarianish ideology at home and war abroad?

Then, again, if you let your enemies define which arguments you are allowed to make, is it any surprise if the permitted lines of appeal aren't all that effective?

For example, the media has devoted 24 years to demonizing the Willie Horton ad of 1988. (Why? Because it was an effective ad about a very real issue.)

I know there is much knife-sharpening among Republicans to denounce Romney and/or Ryan as bad candidates who couldn't sell a good ideology, but, I dunno. You've got a ticket of smart, good-looking, hard-working, competent, sane, morally decent, diversely-accomplished guys and, yet, what they're selling isn't being bought. Maybe the problem is less with the messengers than with the message?

The Scottish Enlightenment, Darwinism, and golf?

A central theme of the Scottish Enlightenment, as exemplified in Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, is that some positive outcomes can result without conscious central planning: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." Moreover, there's a progression that seems obvious (in hindsight, of course) from Smith's Invisible Hand to Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection.

Rugged linksland at Rossapena, Ireland
One example of unplanned development is the evolution of the ancient golf courses of eastern Scotland in the coastal sandy dunes ("linksland") that weren't good for anything agricultural other than grazing. 

Golf has been played in Scotland for a long time -- the king of Scotland attempted to ban golf by royal decree in 1457 to get Scots to concentrate on the more militarily useful pastime of archery. We don't, however, have any records of golf course designers before the 19th Century. Yet, we know that Scots have been playing golf on, for example, the St. Andrews links for quite a few centuries. The Old Course at St. Andrews really is Old.

In general, golf courses tended to evolve by players wandering through the linksland, picking out targets to hit toward, first with rocks, then using leather balls stuffed with feathers. Players would pick the paths of least resistance through the dunes, which tended to follow trails made by grazing rabbits and sheep, who also wished to avoid the roughest terrain and sought out pathways most sheltered from the wind. Repeated walking of the most propitious paths by golfers matted the grass down further, leading to the evolution of fairways. (Golf architect Forrest Richardson summarizes Guy Campbell's 1952 essay on the evolution of St. Andrews here. And David Owen offers a good summary of how golf courses evolved here.)

But, the lowest spots of all, where rolling balls naturally gravitated, tended to be not grassed, but sandy because animals dug in there to get out of the wind. Further, as golf balls tended to wind up repeatedly in the same low spots, hacking the balls out cut back the turf and exposed the underlying sand. Thus, bunkers (a.k.a., sand traps) evolved in exactly the hardest places to avoid, adding challenge and strategy to the game. 

Eventually, in the 19th Century, St. Andrews golf pros like Allan Robertson and Old Tom Morris started consciously improving the Old Course in various ways, but the routing that is played today in the British Open still traces back to that which had previously evolved in the distant laissez-faire past. 

Here's a question: Is there any evidence that Scottish intellectuals such as Smith, Hume, Reid or others ever noticed how golf courses tended to evolve without planning? 

I haven't found any evidence off-hand, but Smith, for example, was famous for taking extremely long walks through the linksland during which he thought out much of The Wealth of Nations. Would he have noticed the processes affecting the playing grounds of the national sport as he walked across them? He was a perceptive man.

What about Darwin, who spent a couple of years as a medical student at the U. of Edinburgh? As a youth, Darwin was more of an outdoorsman than a student. His passion was hunting, but he may have taken some note of golf courses during his Scottish sojourn.

(By the way, the greatest golf writer ever, author of the first classic book on golf courses in 1910, was Bernard Darwin, the beloved grandson of Charles Darwin. This, of course, isn't evidence for any influence on Charles, but it perhaps illustrates my theory that some of the appeal of golf, the grandson's sport, is related to hunting, the grandfather's sport. You wander around a landscape with a club in your hand. Golf is kind of like hunting without the bloodshed, making it relatively more popular than hunting as the male population becomes less farm-based and thus more squeamish.)

Has anybody ever looked into this?

Ryder Cup v. Crump Cup

The biennial Ryder Cup between teams consisting of the dozen top golf pros of the U.S. v. Europe is being held Friday-Sunday at Medinah, in Chicago's western suburbs. Chicago is undoubtedly one of the world's great golf cities, except in terms of quality of golf courses. The flat landscape and the failure to reserve more than a few hundred yards of the lakefront for golf, combined with less than inspired design work long made Chicago the world capital of pretty good golf courses.

By Chicago standards, Medinah #3 has a spectacular site with four holes playing across an artificial lake formed in a surprisingly deep  canyon. The clubhouse, built long ago by the Shriners in an Arabian Nights mode, is staggering. The last time I saw it in 1990, however, the detailing of the course wasn't quite up to classic levels of interest. The course looked more hard than fun. The members have spent a lot of money since then upgrading the course, so it may be much improved.

(By the way, one individual associated with the 2012 Ryder Cub scores significantly higher on the Google Gaydar index than anybody else in the world of golf that I've ever heard gossiped about.)

In contrast to Chicago, the Philadelphia area has better golf land and had better golf architects in the Golden Age before the Depression (e.g., Merion, the 120 acre miniature of the Main Line that the USGA is sacrificing a lot of money to bring the 2013 U.S. Open to).

Golf course architecture is the invisible art form (invisible relative to the colossal investment in golf courses), in part because most of the great courses in America belong to private clubs. The most celebrated course in the history of American golf design is Pine Valley in the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia. Because large galleries would trample down the brush in the sandy rough, Pine Valley never hosts professional tournaments. (Also, it's a men-only club, which haven't been allowed to hold PGA tournaments since 1990, Augusta National of the Masters excepted.) However, the public is invited to walk the course one day per year, the final Sunday of the annual amateur Crump Cup, named after rich guy who built fourteen holes of Pine Valley in 1914-1918.

This Sunday afternoon, Pine Valley is open to spectators to follow the amateurs. It costs $20 per car for parking and a bus ride to the course, then admission is free. Details are here.

"The Great California Exodus: A Closer Look"

The Manhattan Institute has a new report out with lots of statistics on population shifts in and out of California over the last 50 years. Unfortunately, the data tables are represented in image format so I can't graph them easily.

But one thing that is pretty clear is that over the last half century, domestic migration in and out of California has been sensitive to economic conditions, such as housing prices and unemployment.

In contrast, foreign immigration until recently appeared to be relatively insensitive. It simply mounted upward with the number of chains in the chain migration. After all, California was better than wherever they were from, so why not?

This reminds me of a perceptive bit of indignant criticism I was subjected to a number of years ago by somebody who posited, as I vaguely recall, that the worst immigration restrictionists were the Californians, such as myself, Dennis Mangan, and Mickey Kaus.

Our underlying sin was that we liked California and preferred, all else being equal, that the privilege of moving to California be a perk more readily available to our fellow American citizens than to random foreigners.

I'm fascinated by how rare that attitude is today. Can you imagine a speaker at either party's 2012 convention saying something like that?

Perhaps my assumption that we owe certain debts to our fellow citizens, whether or not we like them or approve of their politics, is simply outmoded. The contemporary mindset seems to be that nobody is more annoying than your fellow citizens who don't agree with you, in contrast to those blank slates from Randomistan.

Maybe my point of view is a relic of the (apparently temporary) bonds of solidarity forged by WWII and the Cold War. Growing up, most people in Southern California had some connection to the Cold War and/or WWII, especially the War in the Pacific, which brought so many Americans to the West Coast. More than a few took a look around and vowed that if they got through the war, they were coming back here. My mother, for example, moved from St. Paul, Minnesota to Los Angeles during WWII to be near her first husband, who had enlisted in the Marines and was stationed in California. (Not everybody came back, of course. He was killed on Iwo Jima.)

P.S. The photo above is of the sixth hole on the North course at Torrey Pines north of San Diego.

September 26, 2012

The Passing Parade on Romney's 47% comment

At The Passing Parade, David, an acerbic commenter on the Scots-Irish culture of his home state of Tennessee, offers an unusual perspective on Mitt Romney's 47% comment:
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney isn't "dog-whistling" about race when he writes off 47% of the American electorate. Blacks are only 12% of the US population, not 47%. Much of the shortfall is white troops, teachers, vets, unemployed, students, retirees. This means Romney is bundling them with the fewer than 12% of people who are crack-dealers etc. who are on welfare. Finally, a Republican who doesn't see race. 
Perhaps the GOP can stress that in campaign ads. "Lost your job? Received unemployment checks? Chances are, you're white, but Mitt isn't racist. He thinks YOU'RE scum, too." 
Such an ad would probably play well in red states such as Tennessee, despite this state's being a net taker of federal funds and much of its employment's being government employment. 
Which leads your seldom blogger to his point. Don't give up yet on Romney's presidential bid. For American voters are as reliable as Pavlov's dogs, if certain bells are rung. We all know that "strong defense" works, but "hard work" works even better. "Useless eaters" gives many a disabled vet a tingle. They will climb mountains and swim rivers to get to vote for more outsourcing, fewer government services, and higher taxes on themselves or their families. "I'm not a victim," they will assert even as they take up residence in their American-flag-festooned cars and Mitt goes to China on a junket.

By the way, David has attempted to translate Benjamin Franklin's crucial but difficult 1751 essay Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind into 21st Century English here. Seems like it needs a better opening paragraph, but it's pretty useful after that. I wouldn't mind seeing side-by-side versions, original and modernized.

September 25, 2012

Google Gaydar

In my Taki's Magazine column, I explain how to use Google's auto-completion prompts to quantify the Undernews -- the stuff a lot of people are interested in but isn't respectable.

As an example, I've started with the perennial question of whether various male movie and TV stars are gay. My method won't tell you the answer, but will tell you on a 0 to 100 scale whom the question is being asked about. Being able to quickly generate a lot of quantitative data about public perception, intuition, and curiosity, whether right or wrong, has a variety of uses.
To illustrate how you can use Google auto-complete to measure which actors trigger the public’s gaydar, let’s use veteran comic actor Bill Murray. If you type in “Bill Murray” and hit the space bar, Google offers you the ten most popular ways to complete the search phrase (e.g., “Bill Murray movies” and “Bill Murray net worth”). Not surprisingly, none of the ten suggestions for Murray includes the word “gay.” 
If you want to try even harder, type “Bill Murray g.” You’ll get ten g-word suggestions such as “Ghostbusters 3,” “Garfield,” and “golf,” but once again, not “gay.” 
This is hardly astounding. Bill Murray rarely plays gay characters (except in the farcical Ed Wood). He’s too old and odd-looking to be the object of gay fantasies. Most of all, in all his decades of fame, he’s never seemed gay. Thus, on a 0 to 100 scale of Google Gaydar, Murray is a 0.

I run through quite a few examples and offer cautions and a few tentative lessons from the data. 

Read the whole thing there.

I encourage readers to try out Google autocomplete prompts to measure perceptions of other aspects of the Undernews.

Rich white greedy incompetent sports team owners can be celebrated as victims, too!

Frank Bruni, the NYT's newish all-gay-all-the-time op-ed columnist, tugs at the heart strings:
THE way Kevin McClatchy figured it, he had to choose. He could indulge his dream of presiding over a big-time professional sports team, or he could be open about his sexuality. The two paths didn’t dovetail. 
He went with sports, and in February 1996, at the age of 33, became the youngest owner in major league baseball when he led a group of investors who bought the Pittsburgh Pirates.

I presume that McClatchy is the scion of the McClatchy newspaper chain dynasty.
For the next 11 years, he was the team’s managing general partner and chief executive officer, not to mention its public face. 

By the way, the Pirates were pretty awful under McClatchy's ownership.
And for all of that time, he took pains not to let his players, the owners of other teams or anyone beyond a tiny circle of family and close friends learn that he was gay.

According to some commenters from Pittsburgh, it was common knowledge in Pittsburgh, anyway.
He stepped away from the Pirates in 2007, but it took five years for him to reach the point where he felt even remotely comfortable sitting down with a journalist, as he did with me recently at his home here, about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh, to talk about his private life.

Stop the presses! Rich guy who was part owner of a bad baseball team five years ago wants to talk about his private life.

I sense that some upscale WASPs are starting to figure out that this whole gay thing is a ticket to ride in a 21st Century America where it increasingly helps to belong to a recognized, respectable identity politics group.

Gays have always formed a quasi-covert Old Boys Network in many fields, discriminating in favor of their own and, inevitably, discriminating against females and males who won't play ball with them. But now they can become a public identity politics group as well and focus all attention on discrimination against them, which makes it practically impossible for the modern mind to notice that gays discriminate in the workplace, too. 

Highest paid orchestra goes out on strike

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, traditionally the highest paid orchestra in America (current minimum salary $144,000), has gone out on strike. As president of the Chicago musicians union, my late father-in-law helped lead the CSO's last strike back in 1991, which reminds me of a paradox of labor economics that few Americans grasp anymore: unions are best able to serve the highest-skilled workers.
Back in 1991, the night that was supposed to mark Daniel Barenboim's debut as conductor of the CSO saw the Sailer Family marching in a picket line in front of Symphony Hall on Michigan Avenue, with my father-in-law carrying my toddler son, which made for some good local news footage. Later, Barenboim came over to the union hall to introduce himself to the strikers, whom he was going to be leading when the strike was over.

My most vivid memory of my one night on the frontlines of the labor movement is that I’m not really cut out for class warfare, as I discovered when I shook hands with Barenboim. I had previously met plenty of CEOs, university presidents, Hollywood celebrities and other imposing personages, but major league conductors like Barenboim are in a class by themselves for superb attire, grooming, and (of course) gesture. World class conductors like Barenboim carry themselves like the living embodiment of Western high culture (which they are), and it's pretty awe-imposing. I wanted to ask Barenboim how much his suit cost (so I could start saving up to get one), but I realized that would be a faux pas. I suddenly felt terrible guilty that my father-in-law was temporarily depriving wealthy season ticketholders of the pleasure of basking in Maestro Barenboim’s radiance.

But my wife’s dad, who played the most blue-collar of classical instruments, the tuba, was made of tougher stuff. He and his colleagues at the CSO subunion kept the orchestra out for eleven concerts, then signed a satisfactory deal.

Of course, Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians are not exactly strawberry pickers, with their minimum salary of $144,000. Why do they need to go on strike?

I’ve noticed that the public find the news of strikes extremely agitating. I only went to hear the CSO play once in the 18 years I lived in Chicago, but as soon as I read that the CSO was out on strike, I felt a sudden urge to fly from L.A. to Chicago to hear them play, which the strike was, obviously, stopping me from doing. It’s a lot like when CalTrans announces a new Carmaggedon shutting down the 405 freeway in Sepulveda Pass. I instantly get the urge to drive to the Santa Monica Beach the night of the impasse to see if, uh, the grunion are running. Granted, I’ve never gone to a grunion run in my entire life, but if you tell me I can’t, I sure want to go. The same is true with strikes. When the Chicago teachers went out on strike I suddenly was struck by the thought that if I suddenly moved back to Chicago and enrolled my sons in public school there, there would be no classes for them tomorrow. (Of course, I never had while we lived there, and they're past K-12 age now, but that's what reading about strikes in the newspaper does to your psyche.)

All this psychic agitation was hell on Democratic presidents from Truman thru LBJ. Their allies were going out on strike and the public looked to the Democratic president to heal the waters.

So, why do the highest paid orchestra need to strike. They don't need to, but they are in the best position to, since the CSO has the goal of being the best orchestra in America. The simple answer is that the richest musicians go on strike because they are the best and thus the hardest to replace. Without severe government favoritism, unions end up being guilds for NBA players and similar superstars. My father-in-laws strategy was to emphasize the CSO and the Lyric Opera, then hold on the line on insisting that Broadway touring companies and ballets coming to Chicago have live orchestra. The night club bands and the wedding bands would more or less have to shift for themselves. There is a big pyramid of talent out there, with the CSO at the top. Where would management get strikebreakers? (The NFL owners are today noticing that the NFL referees the locked out really are better than the replacements they rounded up.)

PS: I see the new strike appears to have been settled after a day.

September 24, 2012

Charter Cities Setback: Who could have imagined?

The econosphere has been abuzz for several years with NYU professor Paul Romer's plan to bring the benefit of Good Institutions to Central America by building "charter cities" in the banana republic of Honduras. (Here's Romer's 2011 TED talk.) As economist Daron Acemoglu has explained, the only thing that differentiates a rich country from a poor country is that the former has Good Institutions. So, what the Third World needs is for American economists to plan for them private chartered cities with world class Good Institutions. It's a no-brainer.

Thus, Romer worked out a deal with the government of Honduras to turn state of the art development economics theorizing into reality by building three private cities in Honduras.

What could possibly go wrong? Who could object to such a high-minded, altruistic initiative? 

Well, there are always petty carpers everywhere. For example, a Honduran peasants rights lawyer named Antonio Trejo Cabrera disliked Romer's proposal. The Montreal Gazzette reported yesterday:
Trejo had also helped prepare motions declaring unconstitutional a proposal to build three privately run cities with their own police, laws and tax systems.

In Honduras, however, they have time-honored ways of cutting through red tape and nuisance lawsuits:
Antonio Trejo Cabrera, 41, was shot five times while attending a wedding in the capital, Tegucigalpa, the Peasant Movement of the Valley of Bajo Aguan said in a statement. 
Trejo was a lawyer from three peasant co-operatives in the Bajo Aguan, a fertile farming area plagued by violent conflicts between agrarian organizations and land owners. More than 60 people have been killed in such disputes over the past two years. The lawyer had recently helped farmers gain legal rights to several plantations.... 
Just hours before his murder, Trejo had participated in a televised debate in which he accused congressional leaders of using the private city projects to raise campaign funds.

Meanwhile, Professor Romer has announced (see Marginal Revolution) that he has been frozen out of his oversight role by the government of Honduras, so he's washing his hands of the whole deal.

An earlier American intellectual who had had big plans for Honduras, the filibuster William Walker, who wanted to add Central American countries to the United States as slave states, died by firing squad in Honduras in 1859. Professor Romer should be glad he's out of there without enduring the fate of Walker and Trejo. 

It almost seems as if land ownership in Central America is very serious stuff. (Remember the Death Squads of the 1980s?) Maybe it's hard for American theoreticians to figure out what's really going on in places like Honduras because the truth is only whispered about among locals for fear of ending up like the brave Attorney Trejo.

Perhaps political power does come out of the barrel of a gun.

This fiasco resembles a miniature version of how the Harvard econ department helped provide intellectual air cover for budding oligarchs stealing much of the assets of Russia in the 1990s. Isn't it about time for economists to do some soul-searching and collective self-criticism?

September 23, 2012

John Carney on Crop Rot Fever

John Carney at CNBC has been doing yeoman's work on the annual crops-rotting-in-the-fields scam:
If farms were truly struggling to find enough workers, their labor costs would be skyrocketing. But that isn’t what’s happening. 
The costs of workers hired directly by the farms didn’t grow at all between 2010 and 2011, according to the latest data from the Department of Agriculture. It contracted 3.8 percent, from $23.5 billion to $22.6 billion. Next year it is forecast by the Department of Agriculture to shrink by another 2.1 percent. In light of the rising revenues and profits of farms, this is not a labor market experiencing a worker shortage. 
What’s more, the total cost of hired labor on farms nationwide is still below pre-crisis levels, while farm profits are well above pre-crisis levels. This implies that far from farms seeing a labor shortage, there’s something of a farm labor glut going on. 

I would imagine that the Housing Bubble in California lured many farm laborers into construction work who have since gone back to the fields.
In California last year, despite all the talk of a farm labor shortage, hired labor costs dropped from $6.2 billion to $5.4 billion—a 12 percent fall. This isn’t what happens in a labor shortage. 
There has been some wage inflation in a far smaller segment of the farm labor market: the contract labor market. This is the market for workers employed by third-party operators who supply labor to farmers, mostly for seasonal work such as harvesting. 
Farms nationwide saw contract labor costs rise from 3.9 billion in 2010 to 4.5 billion in 2011, a rise of 15 percent. That might put some farmers off a bit, having to pay the guy supplying workers 15 percent more. But revenues were rising even faster, which is why profits grew so explosively. 
In California, contract labor costs grew 19 percent. While that seems astounding, it growth pales in comparison with the growth of profits at California farms. There may be fewer laborers than farmers would like, but this isn’t a crisis by any means. The farm owners are doing quite well for themselves and shouldn't be shocked that the migrant laborers are also demanding to share in the bounty.

The sheer effrontery of laborers hoping to share in the bounty!

Anyway, a general point to keep in mind is that there are always going to be some crops rotting in the fields. This is, apparently, a difficult point for most non-farmers to grasp. A lot of journalists tend to think about raising food the way parents try to get their small children to think about eating food: clean your plate because there are starving children in wherever!

Now, most journalists understand perfectly well that a sizable percentage of all printed newspapers, magazines, and books "rot on the shelves" and wind up being pulped or thrown away unread. In fact, writers approve of larger, more wasteful printings of their own works. They'd rather have a printing of 50,000 copies of their new book and 20,000 rot on the shelves unsold than a printing of 5,000 and only 200 go unsold. 

But, when it comes to growing food, rationality goes out the window for everybody ... except farmers.

I don't know anything about the farming business, but let me just try to make up a stylized example. Say you are a California farmer. You raise two kinds of fruit -- one that grows abundantly if the weather is warmer than average and one that grows abundantly if the weather is cooler than average. This strategy diversifies away some of your weather-related risk. 

It turns out to be a hot year and you get a huge crop of the warm weather fruit. Sounds great, right? But, here's the catch, your competitors (who are your neighbors) have the same abundant crops of the same fruit. So, the market price of the fruit drops (supply is up and demand is steady, so price goes down). Conversely, the harvest of the cool weather fruit is small, so its price goes up.

(This is an apparently difficult point for journalists churning out crops-rotting-in-the-fields articles to grasp: that the phrase "a good year for whatever" usually has two opposite meanings: it can be a good year for a particular crop climatically or it can be a good year for a particular crop economically, but quantity grown and market price are usually negatively correlated. So, it's not some unique and tragic irony that the government Must Do Something About when a good growing season leads to too much product to be harvested economically: it's just normal supply and demand at work.)

Now, fruits growing even in the same farmer's field or orchard ripen at different times. In an average weather year, you normally schedule, say, three sweeps of pickers through your property for each fruit. The first harvests the first 10% of the crop that ripens early (for which prices are highest because supply is lowest), the second sweep gets 50%, and the third sweep gets 30% that ripens late when prices are not as high because so much has already been produced. It's normally not worth it to you to pay for a fourth sweep, so you normally let 10% of your crop rot in the fields. 

But, in this hot year with a giant crop of the first fruit and accompanying low prices, the first sweep gets 20 percent of that crop, the second sweep 60%. You are then left wondering: is it worth paying for the usual third sweep of the hot weather fruit, for which prices are very low this year, or should you instead use that labor expense to do a fourth sweep of the cool-weather fruit for which prices are very high this year? It may well make sense in a hot year to let 20% of the currently low-priced hot weather fruit rot in order to harvest 98% of your currently high-priced cool weather fruit.

Or, with a particular crop, you might just do one sweep through the field, and then the timing of when to pull the trigger to start the harvest is crucial. If you start a little ahead of your competitors, you'll likely get a higher price per pound, but leave a higher percentage of the crop to rot in the fields. Or if you go late, you'll get a higher percentage yield but a lower price per pound. An interesting decision, no?

Farming is kind of a fun gambling-like business if you are a big grower who spends a lot of time playing around with models in Excel spreadsheets. It's like fantasy football, except you get real money when you make smart decisions. (If you are a stoop laborer, farming is, eh, less fun.)

Now, from your point of view as a farmer, it's perfectly economically rational to let crops rot in the fields. Yet, it's easy to imagine ways the government could help you make even more money by having a cheaper workforce that could glean a higher percentage yield. For example, the government could fail to enforce laws against illegal immigration or it could subsidize the incomes of your illegal immigrant workers by mandating they get free health care at emergency rooms and free education for the illegal aliens' kids. (Oh, wait, the government already does that.)

Or, let's think big, the government could repeal the 13th Amendment. The sky's the limit! We could have permanent agricultural internships. They would be Good for the Economy. And for Diversity. Never forget Diversity!