Friday, March 08, 2002

More news from Boston: Blogsphere followers of our governor, Jane Swift, may be pleased to know that she's pleading for support from delegates to the state Republican convention.

Swift is facing an uphill primary battle with her undeclared challenger, Mitt Romney. Romney is a Massachusetts businessman who ran as the Republican sacrificial lamb against Ted Kennedy in 1994 and astounded everyone by making a race of it. He then got called in to rescue the Salt Lake City Olympic games, which were mired in scandal and nearly broke; his rescue work has gotten rave reviews. He won't "officially decide" whether to enter the race until his duties at Salt Lake City wind up (he's still involved with the Paralympics), but in the meantime, his non-campaign has a squad of vigorous and active non-campaign workers that puts the Democrats who are actually running for the office to shame.

Swift has responded to the challenge with her usual poise and acumen --- which is to say, she made a clumsy charge that the search for a better Republican candidate was driven by sexism (as opposed to, say, her own long string of gaffes), then quickly backed off.

In completely unrelated news, which I mention simply because it's Bostonian and weird, waiters at some of Boston's fanciest restaurants are suing management for stealing their tips.

A while ago, I pointed out that Ashcroft's indictment of Zac Moussaoui left a lot of interesting questions unanswered, particularly with regard to the lack of followup on Moussaoui's arrest, well before 9/11. They're still unanswered --- and since Ashcroft won't even let Congress in on the FBI's handling of scandalously botched thirty-year-old murder cases it seems clear that Ashcroft plans to leave it that way.

So, it's been clear for a while that Ashcroft's style leans towards the imperial presidency. The new surprise is that he has a particular emperor in mind: Nero.

Our Attorney General has taken to beginning meetings by having DOJ staff sing the patriotic song he wrote, "Let the Eagle Soar". Employees interviewed by the BBC don't object on principle, so much as to the practical details. "Have you heard the song?", asks one. "It really sucks."

So, on Ashcroft's view, responding to Congressional oversight is not a proper use of DOJ employees' time. Now we know what is.

Ashcroft has apparently been flogging this song since at least early 2000, when he recited the lyrics as a poem at the Conservative Political Action Conference. But then, he didn't have a captive audience. Which, by the way, he's looking to expand --- the call is out within the DOJ for volunteers to translate the thing into Spanish.

Thursday, March 07, 2002

Advocates of free trade have been somewhat alarmed by Dubya's steel tariff. But in another way, it's of a piece with other administration policy.

Take another foreign trade item --- Dubya's proposal to have the federal government take over the protection money payments that Occidental Petroleum has been paying for years to the Colombian Army, dragging the United States deeper into a civil war, while relieving Oxy of the costs of doing business.

Or take the Superfund, which was originally set up to fund cleanup of industrial wastes by contributions from the polluters. The basic economic idea is sound --- put the costs of pollution onto the balance sheets of industries that pollute. But it's evidently not to Dubya's taste; the fund has run dry, and he's proposing to refinance it out of general tax revenues. (Though, to be fair, this could be more precisely described as the continuation of a policy which began when the Republican House leadership blocked renewal of the taxes on polluting businesses which were funding the Superfund in 1995).

Or take the $15 billion federal airline bailout, which sent all the money to the airlines (which were already in trouble due to plain old bad business decisions), and none at all for the workers who had lost their jobs.

So, remember --- Dubya favors the discipline of the marketplace, and opposes the use of government tax power to transfer wealth. To the poor.

Wednesday, March 06, 2002

Sometimes, a document tells you something without meaning to. Suppose a much-reviled company's ethics manual turns up on the net, and it's full of references to the company's respect for human rights. May we infer that they've been been accused of human rights violations? Well, yes:

... in the Indian state of Maharastra ... leading activists were dragged from their homes and beaten by Enron-paid "police" in what Human Rights Watch describes as "serious, sometimes brutal human rights violations carried out on behalf of the state's and the company's interests." "Enron is now being widely accused of arrogance and lack of transparency, but the people of Dabhol have known that all along," says Arvind Ganesan, who directs the group's business and human rights program. "Enron was complicit in human rights abuse in India for several years."

Libertarians are fond of pointing out the government is more of a threat than corporations because government has a monopoly on force. Which is only true, as Ginger Stampley points out, when the corporations are being restrained by the government.

(The article I quoted, incidentally, goes into U.S. government arm-twisting on behalf of Enron by several administrations --- including that of Ken Lay's erstwhile golf partner, Bill Clinton, which "threatened to cancel development aid to Mozambique if the country did not accept the plan to have Enron construct a pipeline to South Africa"; Mozambique's former natural resources minister says that "it was as if [the U.S. Ambassador] was working for Enron"; also noteworthy is Arthur Andersen's push for uniform accounting standards, so Andersen could offer its valuable services abroad).

Tuesday, March 05, 2002

News from Montana: Members of a Flathead county militia group with heavy arms stockpiles were recently arrested for plotting to assassinate "as many cops and public officials as possible," with the ultimate aim of forcing the Federal government to bring in troops, trying to start a full-scale revolt against the federal government.

Gee. I guess they needed a refresher course in their Enlightenment values.

More news from Boston: Eddie's back. Eddie Andelman, a local sports talk radio pioneer, is back on the air, in his new gig on "1510 The Zone". Eddie's been stirring up trouble since 1969, when a radio producer heard him arguing about sports with his buddies, and put them on the air as "Sports Huddle". On the air, he's a fountain of jabs, jokes, and gimmicks, intoning "Do you beeeeleeeive?" and inventing new cheers ("Jambalaya!") to cheer on folks he likes, relentlessly knocking folks he doesn't (consistently knocking Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe for not having "it" --- an apparently indefinable quality, since Eddie has never defined it), blasting local fans for their negativity (where on Earth could that possibly come from?), and generally carrying on like a guy whose entire radio career is a lark which he could throw away tomorrow (which he actually could; when not on the air, he's made a fortune in real estate, though he still negotiates a $300,000 annual salary for the radio gig on general principles).

He's coming off a three-month enforced hiatus, after he didn't renew his contract with his old radio station --- the first all-sports radio station in town, WEEI --- and management there decided not to see if Eddie would spray them with insults on their own air, the way Imus did when they canceled their contract to carry his show. (They covered the insults on the Boston broadcast with a tape loop saying "Imus sucks", over and over. And over. Is Boston the only town where the sports media itself is as much of a soap opera as any of the teams?). He's still working on new gimmicks and getting settled, but with new Red Sox management in place, a ridiculous trumped-up controversy swirling around slugger Manny Ramirez, and the future of everything from the stadium to the manager very unsettled, he'll be in full cry.

Jim Henley is wondering why I'm torqued about Sen. Hollings' plan to rewire every computer on Earth, to make the world safe for Booty Call. He thinks I like government.

It's not that I like government any more Jim --- it's that I like the private sector less. In its worst moments, it can be at least as corrupt and inefficient as any government program. That was, you'll recall, the main thrust of the argument in the post you quoted, an argument which, to the best of my knowledge, you haven't yet answered. We've got students arguing in Harvard Business School classes that it's OK for their company to knowingly keep making lethal products, since their job is to maximize profit, and product safety is the government's business. When these same people get to be CEOs, I take them at their word that we need government to keep them honest.

Which makes it all the more worrisome when the government that ought to be keeping them in check starts selling out, as in the SSSCA, or, for that matter, the Dubya administration's evisceration of pollution controls on coal-fired plants, which has seen the chief rules enforcer (who joined the EPA in the Herbert Walker Bush administration, which strengthened controls at the time) quit in disgust. One of the main reasons that corporate interests try to buy government favor, though, is that it does have the potential to keep them in check. As can be plainly seen, for instance, in the dreadful Tauzin-Dingell home broadband deregulation bill, where the stress, for the corporate sponsors, is on removing government controls which are keeping rapacious monopolies in check.

(Update: see also Ginger Stampley's well-considered response, which takes a longer view).

Monday, March 04, 2002

The middle-class teenagers are educated. Well provided for. Some might say, privileged. But, something about their lives drives them to a desperate nihilism. Their ideology? One person who has observed them closely puts it like this:

They think and act as though it's an extremely late hour in the day, and nothing much matters anymore. ... This may be hard for some people to swallow, I guess, but they talk about their crimes almost as if they were acts of faith.

And their last best hope?

The goal for the bright ones is to truly mesmerize the middle class with violence. They've been transfixed with disaster themselves ... They've come to feel that there's nothing out there for them. And so they know exactly the effect they're looking for. ... The details of their crimes are always covered with the tightest possible focus, as if meaning might be found there. The result is just what they'd been hoping for: terrifying, mesmerizing violence and no context.

The carnage is mounting. Innocent people have died. What will the civilized world do about suburban white kids in Vermont?

This weekend's entertainment: a trip to see the New Additions to the Altoids Curiously Strong Collection --- a travelling art show cum marketing gimmick which is presently ensconsed at the Clifford-Smith gallery, in the new gallery district on Harrison Avenue, as a Boston Phoenix pick of the week.

Most of the show, like a lot of bad art, seems organized on the general theory that if you can't figure out why anyone would create, curate, or care about the work that is sitting in front of you, it only goes to show that the artist is that much smarter than you are. If you don't see why, for instance, you are supposed to be interested in video shot from a miniature surveillance camera glued to the back of a tarantula crawling through a desert (a piece by Sam Easterson, which includes the dead tarantula) you're just not hip enough to get it.

Sometimes, to reinforce the pretense, the art is accompanied by manifestoes which explain them to the viewers --- and if the manifesto is also head-swimming gibberish, that just reinforces the message. Sometimes, in fact, the manifesto swallows up the work. Quoth the official guide:

Trisha Donnelly's sound piece, a simple bell ringing in the galleries once an hour, is meant to blend seamlessly into the exhibition space so that visitors may not recognize the tolling as an art work. Nonetheless, the bell's associations with the formalities and austerity of church and state have the capacity to profoundly affect one's viewing experience.

Or, one might just think that the gallery has a nice clock.

And so it goes, through a mannikin made of duct tape, a drawing of a few dozen matchbooks which "makes the ephemeral visible" because the cover of each matchbook has something to do with the song the artist was listening to while drawing it (cool!), a model of a hotel pool made out of styrofoam packing material (wow, deep!), and posters for a Jackson Pollack exhibit which have "appropriate" old Peanuts strips for use as a background. Quoth the official guide, "Connecting these two cultural artifacts --- understood to be at opposite ends of the high/low spectrum [it's important to point that out, or someone might not know] --- Muller cleverly questions whether artistic identity is arbitrarily assigned" (Yes, how true! Including Muller!).

While most pieces go for obscurantism, there are a few which go to the opposite extreme:

In a scathing indictment of racism in the United States, Dreas Scott juxtaposes a quintessentially sterotypical black figure of the antebellum south --- Aunt Jemima --- with the text "if white people didn't invent air, what would we breathe?"

Well, I feel scorched.

The sad thing is that the notion of art as a comment on social issues --- without the hackneyed, didactic extremes of Dread Scott --- isn't always pretense. A few doors down from Clifford-Smith, in the new gallery space of the Open Studios Press, there's an exhibit of new American painting, highlighted by a genuinely creepy piece by Melora Kuhn called "Lineup". The picture shows four prepubescent girls in a lineup, standing on circus stands, with the lines of a police lineup in the background; it's half as if they're on display, and half as if they're accused. Whatever is going on, they don't much like it --- they stare right back at the viewer, implacable and angry. Without any direct reference to, say, the Jonbenet Ramsey case, this does make you think about how our society deals with young kids. It's just as well they're not in the same room as the Altoids Curiously Strong Collection; it would wilt under their gaze.