Friday, March 7, 2014

The Beat Goes On

Two Boston Globe headlines:

  • “Visit by Bush to Snarl Roads, Spur Protests”–headline, Boston Globe, March 25, 2004 
  • “President Obama Boston Trip Aims to Raise Funds”–headline, Boston Globe, March 4, 2014

This reminds me of the old joke where the New York Times headline reads, "World to End Tomorrow - Blacks and Women Hardest Hit."

Hat tip to For What it's Worth.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Republicans Should Push for a Lower Drinking Age

Let's face it, most 18 year-olds wouldn't be caught dead registering Republican. Not that they give the reasons why much thought; that would require putting down their smartphones for a few moments. It's an image thing, a posture. Republicans are for old people and stiffs. Definitely not cool. They might as well erect a fortress that says, "Enter here and never get another date." Obama, on the other hand, knows how to tweet, and hangs with Bono and Jay Z! 

At that crucial moment when someone first registers to vote, this is what Republicans are up against. It is a branding problem almost beyond repair. And once someone registers for a party, they usually stick with it for life, so the stakes are huge. 

The irony is that Republicans are far more consistent in their support for personal liberty, something that should resonate with libertarian-leaning youth. It doesn't, though, because the average 18 year-old isn't intellectually equipped enough to understand why, say, deficit spending or the 74,000-page tax code are threats to our liberty. The teachers unions have seen to that.

Social issues, on the other hand, are easy enough to grasp, and our schools make sure students are up to speed on those. Here, the young lean left and the GOP seems like the party of "no." Oh, I know, it's not really the case, especially when you get past abortion. It's liberals who want to ban everything from trans fats to large sodas to Happy Meal toys. But no matter, image is everything.

My humble suggestion is that the GOP rally around lowering the drinking age. Go on offense, make the Dems say no on a social issue for once. Let them be the wet rags. They will definitely be caught flat-footed. The best part about this is that it's actually the right thing to do, and consistent with conservative principles of personal liberty and responsibility. It's one of those pleasant times when principle and expedience come together. 

The drinking age was raised nationally in 1984 to combat drunk driving, and indeed, driving fatalities have declined since, but they have declined among all ages. This can be attributed to stiffer penalties and enforcement. Drivers take a much bigger legal risk when they drive drunk, and they have responded accordingly. Does anyone think the reason is really because teenagers are drinking less?

Younger drinkers have switched to more concealable forms of alcohol, i.e. hard alcohol over beer. This only makes sense; getting caught with a flask is less likely than getting caught with a case. But the problem is that too much hard alcohol kills, especially amongst the inexperienced. “Pre-gaming,” or drinking a considerable amount of hard alcohol in a short period before going out has become the norm. Collegiately, this has led to unintended social consequences as students break down into smaller and smaller cliques to reduce the odds of being caught. Larger, more egalitarian social events are no longer the norm, and if anything, campus binge drinking is a far greater problem now than before 1984. 

Then there's the argument that at 18 you can take a bullet for your country, get married, pay taxes - in short, do all the things consistent with adulthood - but not drink. As long as we treat it like forbidden fruit, it will be treated as such, and the thrill remains. The rest of the world seems to have figured this out, as only seven other countries (out of 149) have drinking ages as high as we do. We are keeping good company with the likes of Oman, Kazakhstan, and Sri Lanka. 

To be consistent with conservative principles of decentralized authority, Republicans should advocate that the federal government should allow each state to make up their own mind on this. Alabama is very different culturally than, say, Maryland. But I would suggest for most states 19 is the right number, because that draws a clear line between high school and college.

So, go ahead Republicans. Cut loose for once.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Something All My Wall Street Friends Should Read

Charlie Gasparino's column today is a must read for everyone in the financial industry. You can view it here.

The gist: you have no clue what's going on in the Democrat party and you are nuts if you think Hillary Clinton will be your friend. Learn, live it, know it.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Socialist Man

Bill de Blasio wanted to raise taxes on the rich to pay for universal pre-K. Now Governor Cuomo says he's going to make it happen without any tax hikes, but de Blasio wants his tax hike on the wealthy anyway. Because.

Yesterday, in the season's biggest snow storm, the upper east side was plowed last. Coincidence? This is a page right out of former DC mayor Marion Barry's playbook. He would always plow Georgetown last, if at all.

Can there be any doubt who and what this guy is? A one-man economic development program for the state of Florida. (I already know my first person bound for Miami, specifically because of de Blasio.)  Get used to seeing de Blasio use the government as a political tool, much as Obama has done at the federal level. That this will go badly may be the most predictable political outcome since Obamacare.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Natural Gas Cars Are Better than Electric

We feel good about ourselves in my town, yes we do. We have installed six electric car refueling stations. If you could see us right now, we are giving ourselves a well-deserved pat on the back. We are thinking globally and acting locally!

In case you weren’t sure, that was sarcasm. What kind of bizarre logic thinks this is a good way to spend taxpayer money? No one, I mean no one, is going to use these things. First, do you know long it takes to charge an electric car? I'll answer that: four to six hours. I’d like to know who’s going to sit around for that long while their car charges. The town, perhaps realizing this, is putting them places like train stations so people can leave them to charge while they commute to the city. But…think. Someone arriving at the station has presumably spent the night charging their car, so it’s already full. Okay then, for argument's sake, let’s say that they forgot. They plug their car in and head to the city. Then what? No one else can use that pump for the whole day?

One wonders if anyone bothered to actually count the number of electric cars in town. I personally know of one. Oh, I know the argument, if you build it, “they will come.” Except they won’t because there are good reasons no one is buying electric cars and their makers are going bankrupt. The technical term is they suck. Long recharging times, poor range, and big price tags. No wonder consumers only bought 23,000 Chevy Volts last year, despite a passel of incentives from the government. (Not just money, either, but things like access to HOV lanes. In my town, you get cheaper parking.) The massive Ford F150 pickup, on the other hand, sold 763,000 units last year.  

But nothing will match the smug self-righteousness of a someone driving a Nissan Leaf fifty-five in the fast lane, usually right in front of you. He's saving the world, so you can damn well wait.

Do greens ponder, I wonder, where the electricity to power these cars comes from? Usually, it's from from coal-fired plants, something we’re not supposed to like one bit. In our case, though, most of it comes from a nuclear plant. While I love nuclear power, the green crowd detests it, even though it is carbon-free. Are you following this?

What we should be doing is building out the infrastructure to support cars that run on CNG, or compressed natural gas. Here's one you can buy right now:

 2014 Honda Civic Natural Gas

Natural gas is abundant, sourced in the U.S., and amazingly cheap. Right now, the average price per gallon in the U.S. is $2.12. Cars using it require less maintenance. It also runs cleaner than regular gas, which should make the greens happy, but it doesn't. They immediately think of "fracking," and Yoko Ono has told them that fracking is bad, so it must be.

The U.S. should be building out its natural gas infrastructure now. It actually won't be that difficult, because there is already a whole network of natural gas pipelines. What we need is to get it to the pump, like in the picture above. Right now, you can see if there are any pumps near you here. There are currently 660 stations selling CNG. The nearest to me is 15 miles away, so unfortunately, a CNG car is not an option for me yet.

Is it for you?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Of Fat Men and Frenchmen

I am always amused that Republicans think they can be friends with Democrats and their media toadies. They think back to best buds of yesteryear, like Sam Nunn or Scoop Jackson, or when Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neil drank beer together. There is an air of desperation about it all, like so many Sally Fields: "You like me, you really like me!"

Except they don't. Oh, they will pretend to be pals when it's politically expedient, like when they're setting up a softie candidate for the presidential nomination, only to commence evisceration the very next morning (hello, John McCain, are you there?). Or when, say, a Teddy Kennedy needed George Bush on board for No Child Left Behind. He was all sweetness and light, but as soon as the ink was dry, he reverted to form as the poster boy for Bush haters everywhere.

And then there's this:

Arguably, Christie gave the election to Obama with the famous bro-hug. Note that this weird, sideways facing posture is surely the result of both men wanting to face towards the press corps. What Obama gained is clear enough, but Christie? He thought he had a new friend, and it never hurts when that friend is POTUS, right?

How naive, and now Christie knows just how much so. The Justice Department, which has been nothing if not Obama's lapdog, is now probing not one but two Christie-related scandals. (They apparently have plenty of time on their hands given their indifference to the IRS scandal, among others.) One, of course, is a traffic jam, clearly a matter of federal import. The other is the possible misallocation of Hurricane Sandy funds. (I happen to view the latter somewhat more seriously, but that's another matter.)

The point is, Republicans, I'm talking to you. Stop being such idiotic fools. Hellooo, McFly. Democrats are not your friends. They hate you and think you're evil. Get over your Stockholm Syndrome and grow a pair.

And so the Frenchman, Hollande. They play by a different set of rules in France, don't they? Imagine a place where absolutely no personal judgements were passed on any sort of personal behavior. A liberal paradise, non? Welcome to modern France, where matters libertine are confused with sophistication.

A little background is called for. For the moment, let's look past the fact that Hollande, a bespectacled socialist class-warrior, has five, count 'em, five names. Francois Gerard Georges Nicolas Hollande. For the moment.

For a long time, Hollande dated this woman:

Segolene Royal

They had four kids together, but marriage seemed like a hopelessly provincial thing to do, so they never bothered...

Then, Hollande started cheating on Royal with this woman, a political journalist (cue bad John Edwards memories):

Valerie Trierweiler

Soon, he blew off Royal and Trierweiler moved in. None of this bothered the French, because they then elected Hollande as president. Trierweiler became First Lady, because in France being the president's main squeeze is close enough (see marriage, provincial). Trierweiler receives all the perks that any First Lady would, including staff, cars, all expenses paid travel, etc.

Now, it seems Hollande is cheating on Trierweiler with this woman:

Julie Gayet

Still with me? I hope so, because it gets better. It is now unclear whether Trierweiler gets to keep playing First Lady. That appears to be up to Hollande. I'm sure that conversation will go well. Hey, Val, got a minute? I'm dumping you for someone else, and, oh, would you mind moving out of the palace by tomorrow?

Does Gayet get to become the new First Lady? Hell if I know. What I do know is that Hollande's approval rating has actually ticked up, a possible referendum on Gayet's hotness. Or maybe the French are just a nation of dissolute layabouts and we should try very hard not to be like them.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Harumph (Music Today Sucks)

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I'm sure many of you, if you're over the age of 40, have had the "music" argument with your kids, the one that starts with you complaining about how awful today's popular music is. I personally believe that today's pop music is mostly wretched and will be forgotten in 10-15 years. It is bland and disposable, as if written by machines. On the other hand, I believe music from, roughly, 1963 to 1979 will be studied centuries from now and will be regarded as a golden age, not unlike the late 18th century.

When was the last time someone wrote a song as ominous and threatening as  "Gimmie Shelter," as soaringly beautiful as "God Only Knows," or with the exquisite craft of “Hotel California?” If I'm missing something, please tell me, because I'd love to download something fresh.

My kids tell me that I simply like the music of my youth. This is a reasonable retort, since every generation romanticizes its teenage years. But no, I think those of us who were young in the ‘60s and ‘70s just got lucky. Musical greatness is not linear, and some periods simply stand out, while others are forgotten. Quick, name a song from the 1910s. How about one from the ‘30s? How about anything at all from the second half of the 19th century? 

I'm waiting…

A number of factors came together in the ‘60s and ‘70s that conspired to produce greatness. Technology played a part, with 4 and 8-track recording becoming available for the first time. 

A friend of mine who runs a record label says it was actually drugs, particularly LSD, that spurred creativity. While there may be something to this, it's not as if drugs have disappeared. Perhaps LSD use has waned...

The cultural backdrop of the ‘60s certainly played a role. And while the flower-power generation was grossly narcissistic, and its societal impact almost entirely negative (in my view), there's no arguing that all that social experimentation paid off in spades when it came to music. Landing on the moon after starting from scratch in 1961was no more remarkable than evolving from "The Twist" to "Sympathy for the Devil" in the same time frame.

And, of course, there's luck. Perhaps no age was as rife with musical genius, from Lennon and McCartney to Dylan to Brian Wilson to Keith Richards to Jimmy Page to Lindsay Buckingham. And more. These brilliant artists were thrown onto a canvas of experimentation, drugs, and technology, and incredible art was the result.

Then there' Really, it started to go downhill in the ‘80s and seems to have accelerated ever since. The art of writing a hook has been lost, as has any ability to harmonize. I can’t remember the last time I heard an interesting chord progression. Lyrics have reverted back to treacly ‘50s simplicity or, in the case of rap, vulgar journeys through rhyming dictionaries. Nothing is implied through suggestion or imagery, it is simply said. "My Life Would Suck Without You," screeched Kelly Clarkson in her recent hit. The Righteous Brothers weep for you.

Much of it seems to just sound the same. Oddly, there's more technology than ever with which to experiment. Garage Band, which comes free with any iMac, has more technology than any studio in which the Beatles played. Any sound you can imagine, you can create. But ironically, the absence of boundaries has tempered any desire to find and smash through them. John Lennon once challenged the Beatles’ recording engineer, Geoff Emerick to make his voice sound like the "Dalai Lama shouting from a mountaintop." He did, with only the primitive tools available at the time. (The results can be listened to in the song "Tomorrow Never Knows.”) Today there's probably a button you push that says "Dalai Lama Effect." It's so easy that it's, well, boring, so why bother? The artist is not challenged so he does not challenge himself. 

I've been pondering getting this off my chest for some time, but there's a reason I'm writing about it now. It turns out there's proof that I'm right! Actual data. Michael Cembalest, a JP Morgan executive, in a published note to his son, wrote the following as his son left for college this fall:

I arrived at college in 1980 (the inception of a decade-long musical graveyard) when many people turned off the radio and instead listened to classic rock and rhythm & blues produced from 1965 to 1978. I notice you like this music as well. Now you can substantiate to today’s generation why that era’s music was objectively “better." 

The Million Song Dataset is a database of western popular music produced from 1955 to 2010. As described in Scientific Reports (affiliated with the publication Scientific American), researchers developed algorithms to see what has changed over time, focusing on three variables: timbre, pitch and loudness. Timbre is a proxy for texture and tone quality, terms which reflect the variety and richness of a given sound. Higher levels of timbre most often result from diverse instrumentation (more than one instrument playing the same note). Pitch refers to the tonal structure of a song: how the chords progress, and the diversity of transitions between chords. Since the 1960’s, timbral variety has been steadily declining, and chord transitions have become narrower and more predictable...

(Source: "Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music," Scientific Reports, Serra et al, May 2012)

The researchers also found that popular music has gotten a lot louder. The median recorded loudness value of songs by year is shown in the second chart. One illustrative example: in 2008, Metallica fans complained that the Guitar Hero version of its recent album sounded better than it did on CD. As reported in Rolling Stone, the CD version was re- mastered at too high a decibel level, part of the Loudness Wars affecting popular music. 

Overall, the researchers concluded that there has been a “progressive homogenization of the musical discourse”, a process which has resulted in music becoming blander and louder. This might seem like a reactionary point of view for an adult to write, but the data does seem to back me up on this. All of that being said, I do like that Method Man-Mary J. Blige duet.  

So there it is. We are being assaulted with loud, bland music. The scientists say so.

Excuse me, while I turn the dial on my radio back to Classic Rock…

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Earthquake for Unions in Detroit

To residents in New York, or California, Illinois or others, who wonder why their property taxes are so high, the answer isn't complicated: it's the wildly generous pensions we pay to our public employees, particularly teachers. The typical teacher where I live is able to retire at age 57 with a (present value) retirement package worth $1.6 million (see "Your Kid's Teacher, Millionaire"). Some of us have been arguing for years that this is an unsustainable tax-and-spend death spiral that will result in New York's gradual slide towards bankruptcy, like Detroit.

Not surprisingly, public unions are not particularly accommodating of this argument; after all, in many states, such as here in New York, state constitutions protect retirement benefits from ever being touched or modified in any way.

Except, no. In a remarkable ruling last week, a federal court ruled that federal bankruptcy law trumps state constitutional law, and that existing pensions in Detroit could be cut or even eliminated.

If this isn't a wake up call to public sector unions and their political enablers, I don't know what is. Your pensions are not safe, and it's a problem of your own creation. Your members, many of who don't even want to be but are forced by state law, will be the victims of your decades of overreach.

It would be nice if this could be calmly fixed before the inevitable crisis, but don't hold your breath.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Obama Ex-Presidency

You weren't thinking he'd retire to a farm and chop wood, were you?

We have a pretty well established tradition in this country of retired presidents leading quiet lives, having passed the mantle on to others. Our very first president established this tradition by relinquishing power to be a gentleman farmer at Mount Vernon.

In particular, ex-presidents are expected stay out of political affairs. There's only room for one guy at the top, and that person has to be free to make their own way. George Bush has become a painter, like Churchill. In a recent rare interview, he was served up the opportunity to criticize Obama on a silver platter, but he politely demurred. (Must have been difficult, considering how much blame Obama continues heap on Bush for just about everything, but he seemed quite peaceful about it.)

Jimmy Carter was the first to break the mold, offering his acidic opinions for anyone who would listen, which fortunately is almost no one. I have to give Bill Clinton some credit, though. Irrepressible as ever, there was no way he was going to hang out all day gardening in Chappaqua. Instead, through the Clinton Global Initiative, he has found a "third" way - staying relevant on the world stage while not interfering too much politically. (Okay, he interferes, but it could be much worse.)

Normally, it would be way too soon to think about how President Obama will spend his retirement years, but Obama himself has forced the conversation by suggesting that he won't leave Washington in 2016. The last time this happened was Woodrow Wilson, and that was only because he was dying.

I will call this now: Obama will be the most meddlesome and irritating ex-president in our nation's history. For starters, he'll only be 55, and looking at another 30 years or so to fill. He will become the community organizer again, this time writ large, a roll he will arguably like better than actually being president. Think about what a community organizer actually does: disrupts, argues, and hectors, constantly jabbing at existing power structures. This is, in essence, how Obama has tried to run his presidency. The tiresome process of consensus building is something with which he has no experience, and it holds no interest for him. This has resulted in not just zero lines of communication with his opponents, but, remarkably, his allies as well. Not surprisingly, leadership as Scold-in-Chief isn't very effective, and actually being responsible for the outcome of things like Obamacare is an annoyance.

But how much fun it will be on the outside! No responsibility! No more boring meetings or stupid heads of state to meet with! The press, ever idolatrous, will provide a mic as needed. Watch out, in particular, if there's a Republican in the White House. Obama will be asked for his opinion on every policy, and he will gladly give it, even organize actively in opposition to whatever warms the hearts of the MoveOn crowd.

There will not be the slightest hesitation. This is a man who decides what laws he wants to enforce and which he doesn't, and even makes new law himself. This is a man who cheered the nuclear option last week after saying it was a fundamental threat to our democracy when he was out of power. This is a man who lied about Obamacare because, with a compliant Fourth Estate, he knew he could. This is a man who has blown off scandals that would have felled others because, again, he knew he could. To suggest that over two hundred years of tradition, starting with George Washington, will give him any pause is about as likely as Self Magazine running a cover story titled, "Get a Large Ass Just Like Michelle."

Somewhere, Saul Alinsky is smiling.