November 15, 2008

What is art?

In The Nation, art critic Barry Schwabsky, an American living in England, writes:

In recent decades the philosophy of art has been much preoccupied with the enigma of why a given object does or doesn't count as a work of art. Since the challenge of Duchamp's Fountain and other readymades, according to the Belgian writer Thierry de Duve, the form of aesthetic judgment has undergone a shift: from "this is beautiful" to, simply, "this is art." For the philosopher, art status is like a light switch, either on or off. But the everyday art world is nothing like that, which is why the sociologist Howard Becker complains that the philosopher's art world "does not have much meat on its bones." For Becker, as for artists, collectors and critics, whether something is a work of art or not is the least of it. In the sociologist's art world, hierarchies, rankings and orders of distinction proliferate. Status and reputation are all, and questions about them abound. Why does the seemingly kitschy work of Jeff Koons hang in great museums around the world while the equally cheesy paintings of Thomas Kinkade would never be considered?...

The same kinds of question could be asked in other fields, but in the art of the past hundred years or so such questions have been of the essence: art is the field that exists in order for there to be contention about what art is. And such questions are not just for the cognoscenti; they've caught the fancy of a broad public as well. Once the man in the street saw a Picasso painting and said, "My kid could do better." Today, that child has grown up and is bemused but no longer outraged to read that a shark in a fish tank is worth a fortune but has been generously loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now he admires, at least grudgingly, the clever scamp who could orchestrate that, and finds the whole affair rather interesting to talk about--even if the object itself might not, he suspects, be much to look at.

The idea that the man in the street talks about Damien Hirst or anyone else of his ilk is a very London-centric notion. On my walks, I drop in sometimes at the two local art galleries, which sell mostly to mid-level entertainment industry people concerned with impressing other entertainment industry people. Neither gallery would touch a stuffed shark. They sell mostly representational or quasi-representational paintings by living artists that are fairly attractive -- stuff that would be pleasant (or at least tolerable) to have in your house. There's more professional visual talent in LA -- directors of photography, set decorators, costume designers, editors, special effects directors, lighting men, etc. -- than probably anywhere else in the world. And the contemporary art scene is of little interest here.

This is not to say that at the high end of the LA social scale, the values of the contemporary art world are not upheld. For example, LA's community-leader-for-life, billionaire real estate developer Eli Broad, has used his vast wealth to scar the city with his hideous artistic taste:

This is the enormous sculpture that Broad paid to have implanted outside the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. From one angle, it looks like a chicken's skeleton made out of old airplane parts. I guess its prominent position is supposed to be an "ironic" reference to Los Angeles's historic role in the airplane industry. It's a whole bunch of twisted airplane parts scrambled together like the worst airplane crash in the history of the world. My father, a stress engineer at Lockheed, spent 40 years squinting at microscopic photographs of metal fatigue precisely to prevent beautiful airplanes from turning into abortions like this -- because in the real crashes he investigated, where he spent weeks picking parts out swamps and wheat fields to figure out why the plane went down, intertangled with the metal bits were scraps of human flesh.

Schwabsky goes on to allude to the fact that the question of what get's called "art" in our culture is less philosophical than sociological:

One unusual aspect of the art world--at least among the people who buy art rather than make it--goes unmentioned by Thornton, although a number of her interlocutors subtly allude to it: the fact that, at least in the United States and England, art's collectorship is heavily Jewish, and perhaps to a lesser extent, so is its "administration." Consider that in London, the unprecedented intensity of interest in contemporary art might never have happened were it not for the efforts of two men, both Jewish: the Iraqi-born collector Charles Saatchi and Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate Gallery. One collector compares an evening sale at Christie's to "going to synagogue on the High Holidays. Everybody knows everybody else, but they only see each other three times a year, so they are chatting and catching up." A Turner Prize judge compares art to the Talmud: "an ongoing, open-ended dialogue that allows multiple points of view." Thornton observes the director of Art Basel, the world's most important contemporary art fair, making his round of the stands: he shmoozes his clients, the dealers, in French, Italian and German, and, Thornton observes, "I believe I even heard him say 'Shalom.'"The implicitly Jewish ethos surely feeds into the feeling that the art world is somehow set apart, part of the establishment perhaps but only "in a funny sense."

It's important to keep in mind that the Museum of Modern Art in NYC is a high WASP creation -- the founding committee met in John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s living room.

Still, it's not just Jewish buyers, but also Jewish critics, too, who determine "what is art" these days, as Tom Wolfe pointed out in his wonderful little book The Painted Word a third of a century ago. Rather than write about three famous gentile painters of the 1940s-1960s, Pollock, Rauschenberg, and Johns, he wrotes about the three Jewish critics, Greenberg, Rosenberg, and Steinberg, respectively, who explained why we should care about them.

And for awhile, Americans did care about contemporary art. Time and Life used to run detailed coverage of the New York art scene when I was a kid. But now, the near-universal opinion in America is that contemporary art of the airplane crash sculpure variety is not just a joke, but an unfunny joke, so nobody pays any attention anymore. Now that Dave Barry has retired, I almost never hear about the British Turner Prize anymore in American publications.

I suspect that one reason that the contemporary art scene in Britain is going stronger than in America is because Britain has fewer Jews, so contemporary art got a later start as a big whoop-tee-doo, so the public hasn't gotten quite as sick of it yet.

The basic problem is that Jews tend to be cognitively stronger with words than with images, so they are better at making up theories about why a stuffed shark is art rather than determining which art objects are beautiful and which are not. (To see how stark the ethnic cognitive divide is, look at lists of nominees for the Oscar in Best Cinematography vs. the Oscar nominees for Best Adapted and Best Original screenplays.)

When artistic status is largely determined by critics and collectors who, on average, come from a culture where people are cognitively stronger with words and numbers than with images, who are better at making up verbal theories than at painting pictures, you get in-joke art for people who want other people to notice that they are smart enough to get the joke.

My pet peeve, of course, is that golf course architecture, which functions exactly like a traditional art form, is never considered "art." (The pictures are from the Cypress Point Golf Club, designed in the 1920s by Alister MacKenzie.) Golf course architecture has had its ups and downs, but it hasn't driven itself into a ditch like contemporary art. For once, the WASP upper class, which runs the United States Golf Association, didn't lose it head. It kept sending the U.S. Open back to the great pre-1930 courses, keeping alive old standards of excellence.

Thus, here's the last course designed by Mike Strantz, the remake of the Monterey Peninsula Shore Course, before his death at age 50 in 2005 (golf course architecture has needed a romantic hero who died young):

Cognitive ability makes a big difference in art criticism. For instance, I have a decent two-dimensional visual capability (I can often figure out the designer of an unknown golf course I see from an airplane), but I'm weak at three dimensions. For a long time, this lack didn't stop me from confidently sounding off about golf course architecture. But as I've gotten to know the inner circle of golf architecture aficionados over the last few years, people like electrician Tommy Naccarato, one of the most influential amateur enthusiasts in the country, who has on file in his brain 3-d maps of thousands of golf holes, I've found myself with less to say on the subject as I better grasp my shortcomings. It's not just that they've worked harder at understanding golf course architecture than I have, but that they're smarter at it than I'll ever be.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

High school football

My kid's junior varsity team is 3-1 in league play going into last night's final game of the season against the 4-0 league leader. With the score tied, the other team drives down to our 9-yard-line with 9 seconds left. The opposing coach could have his quarterback kneel down with the ball, accept the tie, and win the championship with a 4-0-1 record. But he's playing to win the game, so he sends in the field goal team for the chip shot. The snap is a little high, THUNK, the kick is blocked, the ball squirts out toward the sideline, a defender picks it up on one hop in full stride, and he's gone, racing 90 yards for the touchdown, winning the league title (on the head to head tiebreaker) on the last play of the season.

Moral of the story: As Rick James might have said: "Football's a helluva game!"

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

November 14, 2008

Mormons as conservative New England Puritans

An irony of the furious displays of hatred by SWPLs toward Mormons over the last ten days -- in the demonology of the conventional wisdom, "outside agitators" from mighty Utah hijacked the democratic process in tiny, impoverished, defenseless California and brainwashed white Californians into voting against gay marriage -- is that the Democrats had had a chance to make inroads with Mormons, which they've now blown. Indeed, the GOP share of the Presidential vote in Utah fell by something like 9 points from 2004 to 2008. I suspect, perhaps without much evidence, that the rude handling of the Mormon paladin Mitt Romney in the GOP primaries last winter had something to do with Utah's decline in enthusiasm for the GOP.

But, the possibility of sizable long-term Mormon defections to the Democrats, which seemed plausible on the morning of November 5th, is likely now gone for decades, now that Mormons have taken on the Emmanuel Goldstein role for SWPLs.

On GNXP, Razib has a thought-provoking post on more fundamental issues about Mormons. The comments are excellent, too. In general, Mormonism functions as a sort of Swedish welfare state without the state for church members.

Mormon America is a representative of the New England Puritan cultural tradition in "Red America." ...

When I say Mormons are "Puritan," I'm not saying this as a figure of speech; Mormon America is to a great extent both a direct cultural and genetic descendant of New England Puritanism! The proportion of "English" ancestry in Mormon America is somewhat exaggerated by the fact that missions were sent to England and so you had direct migrants from Europe to Utah. But this can't explain the whole of the phenomenon, American Mormonism began as a religion of Greater New England. First in upstate New York, and later in northern Ohio. Its relocation to the Midwest was problematic for a host of reasons, but the fact that they were often neighbors of people whose origins were in the South and they were quite clearly Yankees probably exacerbated tensions.

Mormonism is a very communitarian religion, not unexpected from a faith with Puritan origins. Mormon settlements in Utah were laid out like New England towns, as opposed to isolated yeoman farmsteads. Brigham Young socialized water usage to optimally allocate resources for irrigation. A tendency toward campaigns for temperance and high fertility were features of New England society. Mormons are famously fertile (relatively) and do not drink. Â In Wisconsin administrators preferred Yankee settlers because they were more likely to be willing to raise money for pubic goods such as schools than migrants from the South. Mormons may be low-tax Republicans, but those in good standing tithe a very large proportion of their income obligately in their private life (10% from what I recall), while the church runs itself like a corporation which has economies of scale.

Unlike evangelical Christians in the South, Mormons do not acceptwith resignation that many youth may "raise hell" before settling down. Mormons do not accept the Protestant contention that salvation is through faith alone. Behavior matters. Social pathologies and the personal disorder which has been a feature of Southern cultural life since its inception are not features of Mormon America, which reflects Puritan fixation on public order as a check on private liberty.

Over the past generation Mormons and Southern Protestants have entered into a de facto alliance because of their social traditionalism. The recent controversy over Proposition 8 in California will likely result in even more esteem for the Mormon church from structurally suspicious evangelicals (they do not believe Mormons are Christian, and resent that they claim that they are Christian). In other ways Mormons have come to identify themselves with conservative Protestant America, which to a great extent means Southern America. There are data which show that while 70% of Brigham Young University students rejected Creationism in 1930, 70% now accept it. I believe this is due to cultural influence from evangelical Protestantism, with whom Mormons are now politically allied.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

Dennis Dale on the ongoing Obama campaign as the apotheosis of kitsch

Dennis Dale writes

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.
--Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The appeal of Barack Obama is best understood as kitsch.

The Obama campaign--as any, only more so--is more a work of art than of argument. As such it is (present tense, for it continues) a narrative blend of hagiography, propaganda and mythological fiction. Like any work of art it may blend various genres and themes, but it is ultimately of one specific type. All political movements rely more or less on kitsch, but the Obama campaign, stripped to its essence, is primarily kitsch.

This phenomenon-as-political movement is a masterwork of improvisational, interactive environmental theatre, with the electorate as its participatory audience. But a political campaign is no mere work of fancy or fabrication. When power is the end for which the narrative is the means, one cannot refuse his role in the play, even in opposition. We are all players in this melodrama. All the world is a stage, indeed.

What do I mean herein by “kitsch”? Not merely that it is sentimental, though sentiment is its base material, and would hardly differentiate it from any other political campaign or movement. I refer to the self conscious aspect of kitsch, as the celebration of a given sentiment as its own justification, a transcendent thing in itself. Kitsch is not the artist saying "behold this truth", but the audience saying "behold our love of truth." This is its appeal, directly to our vanity.

What makes kitsch bad art, its unearned catharsis, makes it the most effective demagogy. It requires nothing of us other than acquiescence to the sentiment. Kitsch is the saccharine film soundtrack that drops in before anything has actually happened, cuing us to emote inwardly. A neatly closed emotional system, impervious to doubt, skepticism and irony.

Those few of us left capable of viewing the Obama phenomenon with detachment will recognize these aspects in it--particularly its offer of an easy, celebratory catharsis. In the adoring crowds, in the deliberately incurious and uncritical appreciation of the candidate and now president-elect that continues. In the candidate's unspoken collusion with the media to equate his personal ambition with the civil rights movement itself.

Barack Obama effortlessly assumes the mantle of grievance for the greatest sins of the nation--slavery, segregation, disenfranchisement--not with a greater understanding of this history, as is habitually and thoughtlessly assumed, but with an inferior understanding of it; for Barack Obama, having neither the black American nor white American experience, American race relations is a cherished romance that became one with his considerable ambition. This romance will not be sacrificed now.

For a candidate to arrive on the scene as a sort of prefabricated historical figure, for his ascension to be defined as an act of justice and absolution; in light of the grand myth of the civil rights movement in America and the sheer power of this narrative--the wonder of Barack Obama is not that he is here, but that it has taken this long for him to arrive....

Read the whole thing.

November 13, 2008

A plausible space program for my lifetime

The space program was a lot of fun when I was a kid in the 1960s, but it turned out we were all dressed up in our spacesuits with no particular place to go. The rest of the solar system just isn't very habitable. Venus isn't like the Congo and Mars isn't like Bolivia, the way Heinlein hoped they would be back in the 1950s.

Various Presidents have enunciated various space program goals in recent decades, but not much gets done because it's hard to figure out why we want to spend vast amounts of money to go there.

So, here's a space program goal where we are currently making progress and could actually accomplish within a few decades:

Discover human-habitable planets around other stars.

I'm not at all saying that we should go to these other planets. We can leave that insanely expensive project for future centuries. But finding destinations would keep alive the grandest dream of the human race: to spread out across the galaxy. Personally, I would like to die knowing that my species' fate isn't forever tied to just one planet.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

How big is the recession/depression going to be?

I haven't seen too many people try to calculate how big a recession we need to have -- i.e., if the government manages both to prevent a short-term liquidity crisis from wiping out half the economy and if the government doesn't inflate us into a new bubble that just means we'll have a bigger reckoning later. In other words, under the best case scenario, how much does the economy have to contract?

A super simple model would be to look at how much poorer we turn out to be than we thought we were. For example, say our wealth, such as real estate and financial instruments, is actually worth only 70% of what we thought it was worth 18 months ago.

Then, how does the wealth effect translate into economic activity? People who were taking vacations to Las Vegas by refinancing their mortgage to tap their rise in home equity probably aren't going to be going to Las Vegas for awhile.

If we're, say, 30% poorer now than we thought we were, how much less economic activity does that support? That's a difficult question, but it seems like one that's guessable.

So, just to toss out a round number, let's say that 70% as much wealth translates into a 90% as large a GDP.

So, what kind of recession does that look like? Say, a three percent decline in GDP for three straight years. That's a humongo recession. And that's the best case scenario.

Of course, I just made all those numbers up out of thin air.

Anyway, I'm not making a forecast, I'm just tossing out a framework for back of an envelope calculations.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic tells Tel Aviv audience: "the guy who will be running the White House is essentially an Israeli"

Here's a quote that has gotten little play in the press over the last week. (I was going to say "remarkably little play," but then I realized there's nothing remarkable about it.) From the website of the Israel Policy Forum (via Philip Weiss who read about it via Richard Silverstein):

On Thursday, November 6, IPF National Scholar Steven L. Spiegel moderated a discussion with Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent of The Atlantic and Alon Pinkas, President of the U.S.-Israel Institute at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel-Aviv. The following is a summary of their remarks.

What effect did the election rumors about President-elect Barak Obama have on the Jewish vote? What may the impact be of the Chief of Staff appointment of Rahm Emanuel, whose parents are Israeli?

Jeffrey Goldberg: The rumor about Obama’s “Jewish problem” was one of the non-stories of the campaign. Approximately 78 percent of the Jews who voted went for Obama. Obviously, they didn’t buy it. It is interesting, however, that if you had been able to tell people that “the guy who will be running the White House is essentially an Israeli,” it may have quieted some people down.

Rahm Emanuel’s appointment might be proof that Obama is going to come out of the gate to try and work on Middle East peace issues almost immediately. Emanuel is emotionally tied to Israel in ways that very few politicians are, and is unyielding on Israel’s right to exist. However, his low tolerance for nonsense and his willingness to get into people’s faces should give caution to those who think he will be some sort of “rubber stamp” to all of Israel’s policies. At the same time, it is going to be hard for people to argue that he is anti-Israel.

I have a hard time getting very interested in Israeli-Palestinian disputes, but let me mention something more general: You keep hearing about how Barack Obama's election has raised America's image abroad (apparently on the theory that the Chinese, the Indians, the Russians, the Japanese, and the Arabs are extremely pro-black, which, I must admit, I haven't ever noticed much evidence for). What nobody has mentioned is that much of the anti-Americanism around the world is related to the view that America and Israel are too closely linked. How Obama's appointing Emanuel as Chief of Staff will solve that problem is unclear, to say the least.

Now, let me change the subject to my own country:

Something nobody has thought much about yet is whether or not this kind of obeisance to Jewish political power that Barack Obama displayed by making Rahm Emanuel his first appointment after his election is so pre-financial catastrophe. Has the political donor landscape shifted in the last month with the collapse of so many speculative financial institutions?

The biggest single reason, for example, that the American Enterprise Institute was both so influential and so extreme in the run-up to the Iraq Attaq was not that its idea were so hot but that its chairman of the board, commodity trader Bruce Kovner, was #106 on the Forbes 500.

As a glance at the names on the Forbes 400 shows, Jewish people tend to have a lot of money. And they are famous for being much more likely than anybody else to donate it to politicians and public policy organizations.

But, is this kind of discretionary wealth drying up?

For example, a year ago, there was much speculation about how many hundreds of millions of dollars would Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas Sands casino owner who was ranked as the 3rd richest man in America, was going to funnel through his new Freedom Watch organization to buy ads for neocon Republican candidates in 2008. Well, John McCain got the nomination, but Freedom Watch just remained a shell, not spending much of anything for McCain. Now we know why. From Bloomberg yesterday:

During this period [2004-2007], Adelson got rich faster than anyone in history, “making just under $1 million an hour,” said Peter W. Bernstein, co-author of “All the Money in the World,” a study of billionaires on the Forbes list out in paperback next month.

Forbes recalculated its rich list for the Oct. 27 issue and found Adelson’s fortune dropped $4 billion from Aug. 29 to Oct. 1, the steepest decline for any American who lost at least $1 billion. At his present pace, the one-year loss may rank as the largest ever for a U.S. billionaire in percentage terms, according to Bernstein.

Since Las Vegas Sands stock peaked, Adelson lost about $3.5 million an hour, counting just the value of his stake. [The stock is down 95% from its peak.]

Adelson expanded at “the worst possible time,” said Travis Sell, a consumer-industry analyst at Minneapolis-based Thrivent Asset Management, which doesn’t own shares in Las Vegas Sands.

Gaming revenue for Las Vegas Strip casinos fell for the eighth straight month in August from a year earlier, the longest streak of declines since records began in 1983, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board in Carson City. Macau felt the contraction as the number of visitors was off 10 percent in September.

Adelson bet more heavily on Macau than any other U.S. casino, pledging $12 billion for new hotels, casinos and condominiums to create a mass-market tourist destination like Las Vegas. The Sands Macao was the first Vegas-style casino to open there in 2004, followed three years later by the Venetian Macao. Work has started on five other developments, among them a tower called the Shangri-La.

His decisions went against the grain of other casino operators, who were pulling back. As the subprime credit crisis worsened, Adelson was opening a 50-floor tower called the Palazzo adjacent to the Venetian in Las Vegas, making the 7,093- room complex the largest hotel and resort in the world.

Steve Wynn, chief executive of Wynn Resorts Ltd., delayed expansion of the Wynn Macau after the Chinese government began restricting visas in April 2007. Adelson called Wynn’s decision “wrong” in August 2007.

“If Steve Wynn is so smart, why isn’t he richer than I am?” Adelson said in a Bloomberg TV interview. “I’ve proven it over 50 times in my life: You change the status quo, then you’re going to win.”

Wynn Resorts has withstood the dip in gambling revenue better than the Las Vegas Sands and replaced it as the largest casino operator by market value last month. Adelson’s hotel slipped to third place, behind Wynn and MGM Mirage.

Adelson’s company said Nov. 10 it would leave the Macau developments half-finished as it focuses on completing a new casino in Singapore.

But don't worry too much over poor Sheldon:
“If the world came to an end, there would be cockroaches and Sheldon,” said David Kaminer, 64, a former vice president at an Adelson operation that ran the Comdex computer trade show in Las Vegas. “And Sheldon would immediately be smart enough to open a pest-control company.”

The big kahuna in terms of political throw-weight, however, is not Las Vegas but Wall Street. If the total wealth of financial industry figures contracts by, say, 50%, that will make bankrolling political activism harder to justify.

On the other hand, maybe the opposite is true. With the government quasi-nationalizing much of the financial industry (and who knows how much else), maybe investing in think tanks and public intellectuals offers a higher return on investment than ever. I've long felt that the real question is not why wealthy Jewish people contribute so much to public policy institutions but why everybody else who is rich doesn't contribute much at all.

Lots of people have been donating money to Harvard in the hopes of getting their kid into Harvard so he can then get a job at an investment bank and get rich. Well, guess what? There aren't any investment banks now! So, why not invest in a think tank that will come up with ideas for what the government should do with all the trillions it's printing up and handing out. As I wrote in 2007, Harvard has an endowment of $35 billion, while the American Enterprise Institute has an endowment of $76 million. You get more bang for the buck donating to public intellectuals than to universities (literally in the case of AEI):
So, $76 million is just a little over 1/500th of Harvard's $35 billion. Now Harvard has lots of things that AEI doesn't have, but, let me ask you this: Does it have its own war?

Requests: Forgotten insights of Marx and other dead economists on the mortgage meltdown

I want to write something major about how the mortgage meltdown illustrates the wisdom of certain ideas of old economists that had, unfortunately, disappeared down the memory hole before the Housing Bubble.

'd like your help with this, both conceptually (I invite your suggestions of more ideas and criticism of ideas I outline below) and with helping me find short readings that specifically address these questions. (The classic works of economics tend to be way too long for me to read -- the summer when I was 14, I made it through the first 300 pages of The Wealth of Nations, but only by skipping Adam Smith's 75 page "Digression on Silver." I don't have that kind of time anymore.)

Here some ideas I have:

#1. Karl Marx would rattle on a lot about how under late-stage capitalism, the workers couldn't afford to buy their own output, which leads to economic crises.

Marx's argument was a major concern of Americans throughout the first three-fourths of the 20th Century, but then the idea just disappeared. For example, when Henry Ford invented the moving assembly line in 1914, he soon doubled the wages of his workers. His immediate goal was to pre-empt unionization, but he justified it to his fellow capitalists who were angry at him for changing the pay expectations of workers by saying that he wanted Ford workers to be able to buy Ford cars.

That was an extremely famous statement by Ford for decades, but in recent years, the Establishment stopped talking like that, or worrying about it. Thus, we see America recently importing huge numbers of low-skilled immigrants to build houses selling for $500,000. Marx would have asked: How can they afford their own production?

Well, oddly enough, they could ... for awhile. In the casino-like atmosphere of late stage finance capitalism (another concept of Marx's), they could just buy the houses on credit.

How's that working out for us lately?

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall 19 years ago, the general assumption is that we don't have to worry about anything Marx ever said. It's all discredited, 100%. Well, maybe, maybe not. Maybe the less attention we pay to Marx's critique, the more likely we are to blunder in to actual problems he identified.

2. Thomas Malthus: I want to update Malthusian concepts of scarcity and fertility. For example, why is the Total Fertility Rate in Mexico about 2.4 while the Total Fertility Rate of immigrant Latinas in California is 3.7? Why did the non-Hispanic white TFR fall from 1.93 in 1990 to 1.65 in 2000?

3. Henry George -- Henry George's criticism of investing in land as a way to get rich without actually producing anything seems extremely relevant in explaining the last decade, but nobody has talked about Henry George for decades.

4. Ludwig von Mises: The Austrian business cycle theory of misallocation of investment seems highly pertinent.

5. Some forgotten economist -- David Ricardo's theories of the advantages of free trade have triumphed so utterly that I can't even think of the name of a critic of his.

6. John Maynard Keynes: Obviously, Keynes's fiscal policy theories have a whole school of defenders, such as Paul Krugman, but what I'm interested in about Keynes is his one phrase in which he attributed much of the ups and downs of the business cycle to the "animal spirits" of businessmen. Having spent a decade or so around the executive suites of three corporations, that strikes me as spot-on. A lot of the things we did, we did because they seemed like good ideas at the time. Later, when the collective mood had changed, they didn't seem like such hot ideas. It's an interesting alternative to the mechanistic monetarist explanation of the business cycle advanced by Milton Friedman.

Did Keynes ever develop his "animal spirits" wisecrack further?

7. Milton Friedman: Uncle Miltie certainly doesn't lack defenders, or critics who are blaming him for the deregulation of the financial industry, but my vague recollection is that he advocated, at least at one point, the most stringent financial regulation imaginable: the abolition of fractional reserve banking.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

November 12, 2008

Last straight man driven from musical theatre industry

A married Mormon who gave $1000 to the Proposition 8 anti-gay marriage campaign has resigned as director of a Sacramento musical theater company after being nationally targeted in the ongoing Big Gay Hissy Fit of 2008.

According to the exit poll, for whatever it's worth, the key to the passage of Prop. 8 was the huge black turnout in California in support of Barack Obama. Blacks voted 70% in favor of the ban on gay marriage, if the exit poll can be trusted. (Supposedly, Hispanics were split almost evenly, but I suspect that has to do with confusion over the wording of the ballot, since it was hard to remember that you were supposed to be for Prop. 8 if you were against gay marriage. Back in 2000, Hispanics voted 65% for Prop. 22, which banned gay marriage, and I can't imagine they've changed much since then.)

Of course, the Stuff White People Like crowd aren't going after blacks for voting against gay marriage. After all, they're, well, black. No, they're denouncing ... Mormons, who are white. The whole point of this exercise is for one set of white people to feel superior to another set of white people. That blacks have their own opinions of gay marriage is an unwelcome complication that the SWPLs are trying hard to ignore in order to fully indulge in their hatred of Mormons.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

Hasta la vista

This Slate article "So When Will a Muslim Be President: A guide to which minority group has the best chance to win the White House" by Mark Oppenheimer is a classic example of how a certain minority group that numbers almost 50,000,000 residents of America barely features in the mental universe of the NYC-DC punditry. It begins:

At long last, my people have an answer to the question "When will we have a Jewish president?" The answer, it turns out, is "Not before we have a black president." I imagine that all ethnic groups play this game of "when will one of ours get there?" (The question is especially common among Jews, since we're sort of white and used to success at other jobs—law, medicine, swimming.) But now that a half-African man with Muslim ancestors has defeated, for the presidency, an Episcopalian with a Roman numeral after his name, the bookmakers have to move the odds for all of us.

Which historically oppressed group will see one of its own take the oath of the presidency on a Bible/Quran/Analects/etc. next? We must admit that some groups are too small to have much of a chance—met any Zoroastrians lately?—and others seem too exotic. But plenty of others are in the running. Here, then, is a guide to which minority group will next see one of its own in the White House, in descending order of probability, and with possible candidates included:

The Slate article goes on to consider the chances of the following groups from which Presidents have never been elected:

Latter-day Saints
Gays and lesbians

Do you notice a rather large minority group who is missing?

Last week, we heard everywhere that the Hispanic tidal wave of votes means that the GOP has to publicly expel every single immigration skeptic if it ever wants to win again. (But, of course, Hispanics couldn't possible have anything to do with the mortgage meltdown because there are so few of them.) This week, Hispanics have dropped off the mental radar screen so far that nobody at Slate bothered to ask the writer to drop in a paragraph about them.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

California Scheming

Here's part of my short story "Unreal Estate" in the November 17, 2008 issue of The American Conservative about two guys who buy an exurban McMansion as a speculative investment at the height of the Sand State mortgage bubble. The funniest parts are toward the end, which I haven't posted here. You can read the rest immediately online by signing up for a three month free trial subscription (which gets you the paper version mailed to you and access to all the articles online).

Memorial Day Weekend, 2005

"So, you kids have been engaged, like, what? Two years now?" Travis asks you. "That's great. No rush to get married, not with the market the way it is in West LA. Who can afford to marry and settle down in LA? I couldn't. Georgie Cooney can't afford to get married in LA."

While you’re trying to figure out whether Travis means actor George Clooney or boxer Gerry Cooney, he’s already onto his favorite topic, "Still, isn't it time to get a place of your own? I mean, West LA's a great place to meet somebody, but, c'mon, are you going to entrust your kids -- and I know how much my wife's little sister wants some (you know how women are, they can't keep a secret) -- to the Los Angeles United School District?"

You have this conversation, if you could call it a conversation, each time you visit your brother-in-law’s house. Travis lives out in the Santa Clarita Valley, an hour or two north of West Los Angeles. You get on the 405 at Pico Blvd., head over Sepulveda Pass, down into the San Fernando Valley, onto the 5 and up through Newhall Pass into LA County's northern exurbs.

You're sitting on Travis's deck, peering down into a canyon lined with oaks and sycamores. It's hotter out here than back in West LA, where your $1600 per month one bedroom apartment doesn't have air conditioning because it seldom gets over 82. It's hot out here, but it's not bad. There's a breeze blowing with a hint of the far-off ocean.

Travis says, "I'd be all for you staying in LA if you were an entertainment lawyer or something where you need to be working with the stars. But you manage a drug store and Emma's a nurse. People buy drugs and get sick everywhere.

"I bought this place in 2000 for $255,000," Travis says, repeating a number you know by heart now. "Here we are, five years later, and the Schmidts next door just sold their's for $810,000. So I'm up, what, five, six hundred thousand. The home equity loans have paid for some nice vacations, I'll tell you. My house is my ATM.

"I know what you're thinking," says Travis, who generally does know what you are thinking. "You're wondering why I'm the lucky bastard who turned 32 in 2000 and decided it was the right time in my life to get out of an apartment in LA and buy a house back when houses in California were cheap. Meanwhile, you're 32 in 2005, when they're expensive. Well, they seemed expensive then, too. But I took the plunge anyway.

"I also know you're thinking you don't have $810,000. Who does? That's what they got mortgages for. And you're good with numbers so you've already figured out what a 20 percent down payment on $810,000 is. It's, like … a lot.

"Okay, coupla things you need to bear in mind.

"First, Emma's told me about how your dad always talks about the years saving up for the 20 percent down payment he made when he got that 30 year fixed rate mortgage on his little place in Sherman Oaks. That's ancient history. Dude, nobody puts down 20 percent down anymore, no matter how iffy they seem.”

Travis’s voice goes up a third of an octave. When he’s talking about the Lakers or whatever, he’s laidback. But when he gets going on real estate, which is more and more often over the last couple of years, he lets his inner Dennis Hopper out.

“These days, somebody arrives in California from Gautelombia and wants to buy a house, do you think they make him document his credit history? It's in Spanish, and who knows how many million pesetas were worth a dollar in 1985, and besides, the courthouse in El Carrumbo collapsed in an earthquake anyway, so he doesn't have a paper trail. Documents? He's undocumented. He don't need no steenking documents! He just pays some extra points on his rate, but that's all on the backend. Everybody's happy.

“Don’t you watch the news? The President says down payments are un-American because they keep minorities from buying houses. But you don’t have to be diverse to get a zero down loan. IndyMan is happy to hand them out to everybody.

"Second thing, Santa Clarita seemed like a long way out when I moved from Venice in 2000. So, maybe you got to move a little farther, like out to Palmdale, Lancaster. Antelope Valley's the new Santa Clarita!"

You're not quite sure how it happens, but ten minutes later, you're standing on his driveway admiring the rims on Travis's Lexus SUV, which are bigger than the tires on your Corolla. Soon, you're rolling northeast on the 14, past the slanting Vasquez Rocks where, according to Travis, lots of Westerns were filmed, but you only remember them from "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey." The highway turns north away from the mountains through the high desert. ...

Once off the highway, you see at least one person on every corner twirling or jiggling a giant arrow pointing to an open house. "Human signs," nods Travis. "Like back in the Depression when guys would walk around wearing sandwich boards reading 'Eat at Joe's.' But this is the opposite of a depression. Real estate commissions are six percent, so, on a $400k house, that's $20k, which pays for a lot of twirling."

Stretching off to the horizon are half-built houses and recently finished ones. Eventually, you follow one particularly active arrow to the Cypress Creek Estates. "Yeah, I know," says Travis, "The nearest creek is 20 miles south and the nearest cypress tree is 100 miles west in Santa Barbara. But that's not the point, the point is that everybody in Guatelombia grew up watching 'Baywatch' and has wanted to move to California ever since. Do you know how many people there are in the world? Well, I don't either, but, trust me, you don't want to know. There's an endless supply of people who want to live in California. And their brothers, too! Do you think Bush is going to shut the borders? The President says, 'Family values don't stop at the Rio Loco.'”

Travis’s voice get intense. “They're coming, man, and nothing can stop them. It's the American Dream!”

"Same with the money,” he continues, in a more relaxed tone. “When the Chinese get a check from Wal-Mart for a billion bucks for their latest boatload of plastic crud, they ask the smartest guy in Peking where to invest it. He calls up the smartest lad in London, who tells him, "Lend it to people buying California real estate. It'll be safe as houses." Nobody cares where they lend in California, just so long as it's in California. You should see the prices they’re getting this year for dumps in Hawaiian Gardens, Bakersfield, Pacoima, Compton. Compton.

“See, in Abu Dubai, nobody knows nothing about Hawaiian Gardens, other than it's in California. Over in Arabia, Sheik Rattleandroll thinks, 'It's like "Hawaii" and it's full of "Gardens," so how bad could it be?'

“Although, you'd figure," muses Travis, shaking his head, "That by now, even an Arab would've heard of Compton." ...

Travis says, "In fact, I think I'm going to pick up one of these babies, too, and sell it in six months. We'll be neighbors! Sort of. The mortgage company get a little snottier about interest rates when you tell them it's an investment, so I'll just check the "owner occupied" box. The broker doesn't care. He gets his commission, then Countrywise splits the mortgage into pieces and bundles each piece up with a thousand other pieces and sells the whole mess to Lemon Brothers. The Wall Street rocket scientists call this "secretization" because now they can't figure out what anything’s worth. It's a secret."

You can read the rest online right now by signing up for a three month free trial subscription (paper and online).

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

November 11, 2008

The Sand States

Here are excerpts from "The End" in Portfolio by Michael Lewis, author of Liar's Poker, on the financial collapse. His article is based on the recollections of Wall Streeters who shorted subprime mortgages:

The juiciest shorts—the bonds ultimately backed by the mortgages most likely to default—had several characteristics. They’d be in what Wall Street people were now calling the sand states: Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada.

Last I checked 50% of the number of defaults were in the four sand states. I haven't seen any estimates of dollars defaulted in those four states, but I imagine it was 70% or higher.

Still, I'm not sure that "sand" is the truly relevant common characteristic of the sand states.

The loans would have been made by one of the more dubious mortgage lenders; Long Beach Financial, wholly owned by Washington Mutual, was a great example. Long Beach Financial was moving money out the door as fast as it could, few questions asked, in loans built to self-destruct. It specialized in asking home­owners with bad credit and no proof of income to put no money down and defer interest payments for as long as possible. In Bakersfield, California, a Mexican strawberry picker with an income of $14,000 and no English was lent every penny he needed to buy a house for $720,000.

More generally, the subprime market tapped a tranche of the American public that did not typically have anything to do with Wall Street. Lenders were making loans to people who, based on their credit ratings, were less creditworthy than 71 percent of the population. Eisman knew some of these people. One day, his housekeeper, a South American woman, told him that she was planning to buy a townhouse in Queens. “The price was absurd, and they were giving her a low-down-payment option-ARM,” says Eisman, who talked her into taking out a conventional fixed-rate mortgage. Next, the baby nurse he’d hired back in 1997 to take care of his newborn twin daughters phoned him. “She was this lovely woman from Jamaica,” he says. “One day she calls me and says she and her sister own five townhouses in Queens. I said, ‘How did that happen?’ ” It happened because after they bought the first one and its value rose, the lenders came and suggested they refinance and take out $250,000, which they used to buy another one. Then the price of that one rose too, and they repeated the experiment. “By the time they were done,” Eisman says, “they owned five of them, the market was falling, and they couldn’t make any of the payments.”

This small hedge fund started shorting big investment banks, then found out they could short the securitized bonds directly.

But the scarcity of truly crappy subprime-mortgage bonds no longer mattered. The big Wall Street firms had just made it possible to short even the tiniest and most obscure subprime-mortgage-backed bond by creating, in effect, a market of side bets. Instead of shorting the actual BBB bond, you could now enter into an agreement for a credit-default swap with Deutsche Bank or Goldman Sachs. It cost money to make this side bet, but nothing like what it cost to short the stocks, and the upside was far greater.

The arrangement bore the same relation to actual finance as fantasy football bears to the N.F.L. Eisman was perplexed in particular about why Wall Street firms would be coming to him and asking him to sell short. “What Lippman did, to his credit, was he came around several times to me and said, ‘Short this market,’ ” Eisman says. “In my entire life, I never saw a sell-side guy come in and say, ‘Short my market.’ ”

And short Eisman did—then he tried to get his mind around what he’d just done so he could do it better. He’d call over to a big firm and ask for a list of mortgage bonds from all over the country. ...

In retrospect, pretty much all of the riskiest subprime-backed bonds were worth betting against; they would all one day be worth zero. But at the time Eisman began to do it, in the fall of 2006, that wasn’t clear. He and his team set out to find the smelliest pile of loans they could so that they could make side bets against them with Goldman Sachs or Deutsche Bank. What they were doing, oddly enough, was the analysis of subprime lending that should have been done before the loans were made: Which poor Americans were likely to jump which way with their finances? How much did home prices need to fall for these loans to blow up? (It turned out they didn’t have to fall; they merely needed to stay flat.) The default rate in Georgia was five times higher than that in Florida even though the two states had the same unemployment rate. Why? Indiana had a 25 percent default rate; California’s was only 5 percent. Why?

Why? Because the bubble was worse in Florida and California than in Georgia and Indiana. In the sand states in the fall of 2006, there were still Greater Fools around who believed that Hispanicization meant an unending increase in home values. The idea never gets fully articulated -- are home prices high because Hispanics can pay high prices? Or are home prices high because non-Hispanics are desperately paying high home prices to get their kids away from public schools full of Hispanics? When you spell out the logical alternatives, neither one sounds terribly sustainable, but the point is that political correctness keeps people from thinking it through. Young Wall Streeters just all emotionally believed Diversity = Goodness = Money.

It's one of those ideas -- that a constant influx of Hispanics meant ever growing property values -- that people get in their heads vaguely, but aren't allowed to interrogate under our reigning worldview and our reigning EEOC regulations, under which Malcolm Gladwell makes a fortune and Charles Murray makes nothing lecturing corporations.

Moses actually flew down to Miami and wandered around neighborhoods built with subprime loans to see how bad things were. “He’d call me and say, ‘Oh my God, this is a calamity here,’ ” recalls Eisman. All that was required for the BBB bonds to go to zero was for the default rate on the underlying loans to reach 14 percent. Eisman thought that, in certain sections of the country, it would go far, far higher.

The funny thing, looking back on it, is how long it took for even someone who predicted the disaster to grasp its root causes. They were learning about this on the fly, shorting the bonds and then trying to figure out what they had done. Eisman knew subprime lenders could be scumbags. What he underestimated was the total unabashed complicity of the upper class of American capitalism. For instance, he knew that the big Wall Street investment banks took huge piles of loans that in and of themselves might be rated BBB, threw them into a trust, carved the trust into tranches, and wound up with 60 percent of the new total being rated AAA.

But he couldn’t figure out exactly how the rating agencies justified turning BBB loans into AAA-rated bonds. “I didn’t understand how they were turning all this garbage into gold,” he says. He brought some of the bond people from Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and UBS over for a visit. “We always asked the same question,” says Eisman. “Where are the rating agencies in all of this? And I’d always get the same reaction. It was a smirk.” He called Standard & Poor’s and asked what would happen to default rates if real estate prices fell. The man at S&P couldn’t say; its model for home prices had no ability to accept a negative number. “They were just assuming home prices would keep going up,” Eisman says. ...

That’s when Eisman finally got it. Here he’d been making these side bets with Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank on the fate of the BBB tranche without fully understanding why those firms were so eager to make the bets. Now he saw. There weren’t enough Americans with shitty credit taking out loans to satisfy investors’ appetite for the end product. The firms used Eisman’s bet to synthesize more of them. Here, then, was the difference between fantasy finance and fantasy football: When a fantasy player drafts Peyton Manning, he doesn’t create a second Peyton Manning to inflate the league’s stats. But when Eisman bought a credit-default swap, he enabled Deutsche Bank to create another bond identical in every respect but one to the original. The only difference was that there was no actual homebuyer or borrower. The only assets backing the bonds were the side bets Eisman and others made with firms like Goldman Sachs. Eisman, in effect, was paying to Goldman the interest on a subprime mortgage. In fact, there was no mortgage at all. “They weren’t satisfied getting lots of unqualified borrowers to borrow money to buy a house they couldn’t afford,” Eisman says. “They were creating them out of whole cloth. One hundred times over! That’s why the losses are so much greater than the loans. But that’s when I realized they needed us to keep the machine running. I was like, This is allowed?”

Still, this leaves open the question of why the financial engineers chose strawberry pickers with $720,000 mortgages to replicate in order to place double or nothing bets. Why not replicate your bets on Steve Jobs? Why build mountains of leverage on top of the pebble of probability that the strawberry picker was going to pay back his mortgage or find an even greater fool wanting to pay a fortune to live among strawberry pickers?

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

November 10, 2008


Excerpts from my review of "W." in The American Conservative:

Given the limitations of Oliver Stone’s biopic about George W. Bush (modest budget, rushed production, lack of memoirs by the officials who started the Iraq War, and Stone’s own fading powers), “W.” turns out better than expected.

Anchored by another charismatic performance by Josh Brolin (the hunter turned hunted protagonist of “No Country for Old Men”), this tragicomedy of regression to the mean offers a plausible depiction of the President’s resentful yet admiring relationship with his imposing father, and the complicated ways that set the stage for the 2003 Iraq invasion. Brolin has emerged recently as such an enjoyable leading man to watch that he makes spending 129 minutes with George W. Bush fun.

The historical accuracy of Stone’s films has been improving since their nadir with the infuriating but stylistically dazzling “JFK” in 1991. Unfortunately, as the older, wiser Stone has gotten more honest, his aesthetic bravura has dwindled. ... The great majority of the screenplay, though, strikes me as on solid ground, historically and psychologically. ...

It has not been a success with the critics, who are annoyed that it doesn’t condemn conservatism as inherently evil. Indeed, Stone’s depiction of George H.W. Bush as an old-fashion prudent conservative is downright hagiographic. ...

It’s unfortunate that Freud’s silly theories have discredited all psychological analyses based on nuclear family dynamics, because they can sometimes explain much about politicians. The ambitions of both Winston Churchill and Barack Obama, for example, were fired by political fathers who ignored their sons on the way up, then failed ignominiously.

George W. Bush’s Poppy Problem was the opposite of Obama’s: his father was an all around pretty good guy. As Stone commented, “Forty years is a long time to wait when your father is better at sports, politics, oil, money, diplomacy, and even academics than you are.”

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

Comment of the Day

A reader explain why it's so hard to "meet someone" these days:

The reason things are broken is that older married women used to create the social context in which their children could get married and make grandbabies for them, but now they all have mostly completely useless jobs instead.

Some of them knew they were doing this, but most were just doing what they felt was expected of them. Mostly women do what they feel is expected of them. It's expected now that women have jobs. If they don't have a job, they need to be doing intensive childrearing or volunteer work. It's completely unacceptable for them to spend their afternoons playing bridge or touring each other's gardens or shopping for hats or any other ladylike pursuit.

But those apparently useless activities BUILT THE ENTIRE FREAKING SOCIAL WORLD. Just like a world of women would never invent anything useful, a world of men will never have a nice party. You meet your future spouse at a nice party that your mom nagged you into going to because her friend needs more people there. You have total plausible deniability about being there - you're not there cause you're lonely and desperate - you don't need game, you don't need the rules. The biddies took care of that for you. All you need to do is show up and be fertile/virile.

But middle-aged women can't do this, and have jobs, and take care of their elderly parents, and exercise, and worry about their husbands leaving them or have to take care of their children with no husband at all. Impossible.

This is illustrated explicitly in Helen Fielding's very funny Bridget Jones's Diary (which is a blend of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice with a distaff version of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, but set in the dysfunctional mating environment of upscale 1990s London),

Bridget spends a lot of time in expensive restaurants and bars with her two girlfriends and her gay male friend complaining about how they can never meet anybody. She meets proto-Pick Up Artist Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant in the movie) at her semi-glamorous (and mostly-useless) media job.

But she keeps running into the awkward but admirable Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) when she reluctantly drives out of London to obligingly show up at the various old-fashioned suburban parties her upper middle class housewife mother and her mother's friends are constantly throwing and roping their children into attending so that the parties will be a success. Mark is the son of an admiral in Bridget's parent's social set, a top lawyer whose first marriage broke up when his wife had an affair with Daniel Cleaver. Like Bridget, he also hates being dragged into attending the old biddies' parties, but he dutifully shows up because his mother and his mother's friends need more people.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

November 9, 2008

Now out on DVD: "Iron Man"

Here's my review of "Iron Man" from last May in The American Conservative:

In contrast to the manga-addicted Japanese, Americans don't actually like comic books much. Sales have been sluggish since the collapse of the speculator-driven collectible bubble in the early 1990s. The fundamental flaw of comic books is that by using pictures to dispense with time-consuming verbal descriptions, they quickly chew through countless plot permutations, exhausting all but the most obsessive readers.

What Americans like instead, as the $100 million opening weekend for the entertaining "Iron Man" shows, are comic book movies. Two hours is the right amount of time for the tragic death of the parents of the superhero, his dawning awareness of his powers for good and evil, a bruising fight with an older supervillain in the skies over a megalopolis, and an epilogue setting up the sequel.

Granted, Hollywood is scraping the bottom of the comic book barrel with Iron Man, a name more famous as the title of the thudding heavy metal classic by Black Sabbath. (Was the song inspired by the superhero? Nobody seems to know -- you try getting a straight story out of an elderly English rock star about what he was thinking in 1970.) Yet, Iron Man's obscurity didn't prove a marketing problem because, as Canadian journalist Colby Cosh has noted, "The public adores the familiar, even if all they know is that it should be familiar."

Iron Man was dreamed up by Stan Lee in 1963 as Marvel Comics' answer to DC's Batman. Like Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark lacked superpowers, but he made up for it by being a billionaire playboy inventor a la Howard Hughes. That was an era of engineer heroes, such as Hyman Rickover of the nuclear navy, Wernher von Braun of the space program, and Kelly Johnson of Lockheed's Skunk Works. In contrast, today's most celebrated tech tycoon is Apple's Steve Jobs, whose specialty is simplifying user interfaces (while the boring manufacturing is subcontracted off somewhere overseas).

Rather than fighting crime like Wayne, Stark's focus was foreign policy. While prototyping a new Stark Industries weapons system for our advisors in Vietnam, he was captured by "red guerilla tyrant" Wong Chu, who put him to work building a superweapon for some nefarious purpose. Stark, though, secretly banged together a robot exoskeleton (probably inspired by the mobile infantry powers suits in Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 novel Starship Troopers) and smashed his way out.

The movie is transplanted to Afghanistan in 2008. The villain isn't the Taliban (there are a lot of Muslim potential ticket-buyers out there), but a freelance warlord who has assembled a multicultural gang of mercenaries from across the Eurasian steppe, from Hungary to Mongolia, to rebuild the empire of Genghis Khan. (How using Stark's high tech weaponry to pillage one mud brick village in the Hindu Kush gets him closer to world domination isn't explained.)

In most action movies, the bad guys' henchmen are suicidally devoted to the cause, even if they are just in it for money. In a clever touch of realism in this consistently enjoyable film, however, the hired goons are just bullies who flee in terror from what looks like a man wrapped in pick-up truck bumpers.

Soon, the engineering genius is back in his workshop in his John Lautner-designed Iron Mansion in Malibu, building a more advanced suit to track down who is bootlegging his firm's weaponry. "Iron Man" is a refreshing throwback to the pre-virtual age when heroes forged tools out of metal, rather than just tap on a computer keyboard. It's the most loving tribute to machinery since James Cameron vanished.

Casting the twice-imprisoned Robert Downey Jr. as the hero was a risk because the leading man in a $186 million production must be insurable, and his work ethic should provide a role model for the crew. That's one reason Cameron made Arnold Schwarzenegger a huge star, even though he can barely speak English. Downey, in contrast, is blessed with the most nimble articulation of any American actor since James Woods. He could whip through Hamlet in three hours. Indeed, one of the more intriguing what-ifs of recent American theatre history was the drug-cancelled 2001 production of Hamlet, in which Downey was to be directed by his friend Mel Gibson.

Sober for half a decade, Downey remains the master of the throwaway line. Watch how lightly he tosses off his inevitable last line, "I am Iron Man," just before Black Sabbath's power chords clang over the credits.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

My Election Wrap-Up VDARE column

Lots of good stuff in my column this week, so read the whole thing, but here's an excerpt of things you won't find elsewhere on what's wrong with exit polls in general and why they're no good for determining an ethnic groups' share of the electorate.

Unfortunately, exit polling is becoming less reliable each election. Its history in this decade has been ignominious.

In the 2002 midterm elections, the exit polls weren’t published because of a software foul-up. (In 2003, I purchased the raw data and crunched the 2002 numbers so they wouldn’t be lost to history.)

In 2004, the exit polls predicted a narrow Kerry victory. In addition, they initially reported that Bush had garnered 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. After I pointed out how unlikely that was, the polling company announced weeks later that the number should have been about 40 percent. (And keep in mind that Bush only got to 40 percent via his Housing Bubble, which poured hundreds of billions of dollars into the pockets of Hispanic homebuyers and construction workers.)

In 2008, the lone exit poll predicted an Obama landslide. Karl Rove complained right after this election:

"We can't be precise, because for the third election in a row the exit polls were trash. The raw numbers forecast an 18-point Obama win, news organizations who underwrote the poll arbitrarily dialed it down to a 10-point Obama edge, and the actual margin was six. [Actually, closer to seven than to six, it looks now.]"[How the President-Elect Did It , by Karl Rove, WSJ, November 6, 2008]

Why are exit polls so bad in this decade?

One problem is that there is more early voting and more mail-in voting each election. In 2008, there was also likely to be a large Bradley Effect in which intimidated Republican voters offer politically correct answers to the young, Democratic-looking pollsters who accost them after voting.

Nevertheless, the most fundamental problem is one that's common in the marketing research industry, where I worked for many years: it has become a monopoly.

There’s an old saying in the marketing research business that in viable industry segment, there’s only room for 1.5 firms. You'll notice, for example, that Nielsen doesn't have any competition for TV ratings and Arbitron doesn't have any competition for radio ratings. They could enter each other’s field, but then they’d both lose money in both fields. Why ruin nice little monopolies? In contrast, in the supermarket sales data field, there have long been two competitors, with rapid technological advancements resulting. That little industry, however, was long notorious among investors for generating terrible profit margins due to a decade-long price war between the two rivals.

Back in 2000, there were three national exit polls, one sponsored by a group of media outlets (which I’ll call the CNN poll for the convenience of its website), one by the New York Times, and one by the Los Angeles Times. They came up with different figures for the GOP share of the Hispanic vote: 31 percent according to the NYT, 35 percent according to CNN and its colleagues, and 38 percent according to the LAT.

This fuzzy math had the dual benefits of keeping you from being too stridently confident about the results ("Well, all we can say is the real number was likely somewhere in the 30s") while letting you triple-check your numbers ("Yes, although we can’t be sure, 35 percent sounds like a reasonable estimate.")

Over the course of the decade, unfortunately, the individual newspapers dropped out of the business. The cartel’s poll has wound up as a monopoly, with the usual results in terms of quality and reliability. Without competition to spur them on, they usually do a bad job.

It’s particularly important to understand that exit polls are not a very good way to determine an ethnic group’s share of the vote. There are all sorts of articles exulting over the huge turnout of Hispanics last Tuesday, but they all seem to reference the exit poll rather than real world results. A huge chunk of Hispanic voters are in California and Texas, both states in which there was little campaigning, advertising, or canvassing because they were all wrapped up.

The CNN exit poll has a long history of exaggerating the Hispanic share of the vote in contrast to the gold standard Census Bureau phone survey of 50,000 households that is conducted immediately after each election but not released until the following year. In 2000, the CNN and friends exit poll reported Hispanics made up 7 percent. The Census Bureau said 5.4 percent. In 2004, CNN said 8 percent, the Census 6.0 percent. In 2008, CNN said 9 percent, while, I’m guessing, based on trends going back to the 1970s, that the Census Bureau will eventually report the 2008 Hispanic fraction as a little under 7.0 percent.

It’s worth noting that this year’s much-publicized 9 percent figure for Hispanic’s share of the vote is from the exit poll’s smaller "national sample." The blogger Audacious Epigone toted up the figures from the exit poll’s much larger "state sample" and came up with 7.54 percent, which sounds more plausible.

In general, exit polls aren't very good at figuring out turnout shares. If you stop and think about what’s involved in running a national exit poll, you can grasp why.

Only a tiny fraction of all the polling places in the country are covered, so the polling company has to decide ahead of time where to send their pollsters. That isn’t a big problem for calculating, say, the female share of the vote, because males and females generally live in the same neighborhoods. However, racial groups frequently don’t live in the same neighborhoods. Thus, the polling firm has to choose carefully which neighborhoods to survey in order to get the "right" number of voters from a particular group.

Therefore, long before the election, the polling company must come up with an estimate of each group’s expected share in order to decide which polling stations to cover. This prediction tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The firm’s thinking may go something like this: "Okay, we said the Hispanic share last time was 8 percent, and everybody knows they are growing, so we’d better report Hispanics as 9 percent this time, or we’ll look bad. So, let’s figure out which neighborhoods to send pollsters to in order that 9 percent of the voters they interview are Hispanic."

Read the rest here.

Mystery of the murky Obama-Signator relationship solved!

One of the more enigmatic articles about President-Elect Obama appeared in on October 20, but I think I've cracked the secret. See if you come up with the same explanation as I did for why Obama drops in several times per day on his not very international man of mystery, Michael Signator:

'Mystery' Man lends support to Obama

by Kenneth P. Vogel

CHICAGO — He's the star of bulletins chronicling Barack Obama's movements, one of only a few nonrelatives to consistently get time with the Democratic candidate for president and a trusted confidant who has shared some of the most pivotal moments of Obama's career with him.

Yet journalists who have followed Obama's campaign for the better part of two years don't know what he looks like, staffers who have logged countless hours traveling with Team Obama didn't even know he works for the campaign and there's never been a story in a major media outlet about him.

He is Michael Signator, an aide and buddy of the man who — according to polls — stands a better-than-50-50 shot of becoming the next president of the United States of America.

Technically, Signator's job is to provide "supplemental security support" for Obama's presidential campaign and also to coordinate the Obama family's personal and campaign schedules, according to Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.

A police officer in a suburban Chicago town, Signator met Obama while volunteering for his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, which eventually hired him as Obama's driver.

For security reasons, Obama's presidential campaign refuses to reveal the details of Signator's role, but LaBolt said it brings Signator into frequent, close contact with the Obamas.

"Barack and Michelle Obama regularly confer with Mike, as do senior campaign officials. Sen. Obama has met with Signator both at the Obamas' home and at Mike's," LaBolt said in a statement.

Though Signator owns a home in suburban DuPage County — about an hour west of the Obamas' Chicago home — he also rents an apartment on the 16th floor of a high-rise called Regents Park, located just a few blocks from Obama's house in the leafy Kenwood neighborhood on Chicago's South Side.

When Obama is at home, he works out regularly in the well-appointed gym on the ground floor of the building. But according to "protective pool reports" distributed among journalists following the campaign, Obama may also occasionally stop by the building just to hang out with "Sig," as some campaign staffers call him.

On a Sunday morning in late June, for instance, a pool report explained that Obama "went for a workout at his friend's Mike Signator's building. He wore his black White Sox cap; a gray T-shirt and black workout pants. He only stayed about 15 minutes. Press staff was unsure whether he worked out or just hung with his friend."

Pool reports have characterized Signator as, among other things, a "friend," a "longtime aide" and a "former bodyman."

Bodymen are like traveling administrative assistants who cater to a politician's every need, from 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry's peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to Obama's MET-Rx chocolate roasted-peanut protein bars, which are kept on hand by his current bodyman, Reggie Love, a former football and basketball player at Duke University.

Though the job can sometimes be less than glamorous, young up-and-comers leap at the chance to do it because bodymen, by definition, are the aides physically closest to — and trusted by — politicians, and that can lead to bonds akin to child-parent relationships with their bosses.

Signator, though, is 50 years old — three years older than Obama — and displays few of the trappings of a rising Beltway insider, with public records indicating he's spent most of his adult life in and around Chicago.

Reached by telephone, he declined to comment on his relationship with Obama and his family, and asked how Politico obtained his telephone number. He directed inquiries to the Obama campaign press office and explained, "I can't do any type of interview at all. I apologize. I'm sorry, and please just disregard this phone number, because I can't take any calls."

The campaign press staff — which at first denied that Signator worked for the campaign, then discouraged Politico from writing about him — declined to set up an interview.

That leaves public records and the protective pool reports — written by journalists tapped from the traveling press contingent to follow Obama during all non-campaign-related activities and report back to their colleagues on the typically mundane details — to piece together a picture of Signator and his place in Obama World.

According to Federal Election Commission records, Obama's campaign through the end of August had paid Signator $47,600. The payments, which began in March 2007 at $2,900 a month, dwindled to less than $800 a month in May of this year — a full year after the Secret Service began protecting Obama. ...

Obama writes that "the process by which I was selected as the keynote speaker remains something of a mystery to me." Then, one afternoon, as Signator was driving him from Springfield, the state capital where Obama was a state senator, to Chicago, where he had an evening campaign event, Obama got a call from Kerry's campaign manager, who asked him to keynote the convention.

After he hung up, Obama turned to Signator and said "I guess this is pretty big," according to "Audacity." It reports that Signator nodded and said, "You could say that." ...

Whatever the two men's current relationship, the Illinois senator has spent so much time at the Regents Park that many of the residents have their own Obama stories, according to Min Kim.

"I've run into him by the elevator," the 21-year-old University of Chicago student boasted last Sunday morning as he waited for a ride outside the building, near Secret Service agents and local cops standing sentry while Obama was inside.

Kim admitted, though, that he froze up and didn't say anything to the would-be president.

Sometimes, according to pool reports, Obama has dropped by multiple times in a single day, particularly while he was weighing his choice of a running mate. That led some in his traveling press corps to speculate that Obama may have been meeting with prospective vice presidential nominees at Sig's place, and it prompted The Washington Post to crack that Signator was "not, as far as we know, on the short list."

Okay, are you ready to take a shot at explaining why, when feeling under pressure, Obama drops in frequently on his driver / ex-bodyguard for 15 minutes at a time. I'll put my guess below:


Keep scrolling:

Obama goes over to Mike Signator's apartment to ...

smoke a cigarette.

So, it's not a very exciting mystery, after all.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer