May 5, 2012

Posted by orrinj at 10:08 AM


Robert Caro: Political Power--How to Get It and Use It: Lyndon Johnson's famed biographer talks about what he's learned studying America's 36th President and Robert Moses. (BRIAN BOLDUC, 5/04/12, WSJ)

In the 1960s, he wrote an exposé for Newsday about urban planner Robert Moses's foolhardy plan to build a bridge across Long Island Sound from Rye, N.Y., to Oyster Bay, Long Island. Had the bridge been built, its gigantic piers would have interfered with the tide and caused water pollution, Mr. Caro argues. Although then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and State Assembly speaker Anthony Travia were both aware of the dangers, the assembly, under Moses's spell, initially voted in favor of the project "by something like 138 to 4."

That vote was a revelation to Mr. Caro. "Here's a guy who wasn't elected to anything, and he has more power than anyone else," he thought. "And you, Bob, think you're writing about political power, and you don't have any idea where he got this power."

His second great awakening occurred in 1965 while taking a class on urban planning at Harvard. The instructors were teaching the students that highways were built according to mathematical models: Urban planners measured factors like population density and commute time and picked their locations accordingly.

Still smarting from his encounter with Moses, Mr. Caro thought, "No, that's wrong. Highways get built where they're built because Robert Moses wants them built there." After realizing he had "something to contribute" to the field, Mr. Caro wrote a biography of Moses, "The Power Broker." It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. The volume has been so influential that even President Obama has acknowledged its influence on his thinking.

That year, Mr. Caro decided his next subject would be Johnson, who died in 1973. "You can use a biography to examine political power, but only if you pick the right guy," he says. "Moses was the right man because he had done something no one had done before: get power outside the elected process on that scale." Johnson, meanwhile, "understood national political power better than any president since [Franklin] Roosevelt."

Yet Mr. Caro discerns a key difference between his subjects. While Moses was an idealist whom power corrupted, Johnson wanted power for two reasons. "One," he says, "was to bend people to his will."

When Johnson was in college, for instance, he convinced the college president to let him assist in picking which students got campus jobs. As Mr. Caro writes in "The Passage of Power," "The wages from a campus job were often a student's only hope of paying his tuition." Spitefully, Johnson wouldn't recommend a student for a job unless he personally asked for his assistance.

Coexistent with this "naked desire for power," however, was a wish "to help the lives of poor people, particularly people of color," Mr. Caro adds. 

Posted by orrinj at 10:01 AM


Yes, the Health-Care Mandate Is About Liberty (Jonathan Cohn and David A. Strauss, May 3, 2012, Bloomberg)

Insurers need premiums from healthy people, so that, at any one time, they have money to pay the bills of the sick and injured. Private insurers can build these broad risk pools when they sell coverage through large employers, since such companies typically have big and diverse workforces. But when insurers sell health-care policies directly to individuals, they run into trouble: They disproportionately attract people who already have medical conditions.

During the 20th century, this problem of "adverse selection" pushed many insurers into financial distress.

To preserve themselves, carriers today charge higher premiums, reduce benefits or deny coverage altogether to applicants who have pre-existing medical conditions. Although this keeps insurers solvent, it excludes people who need insurance the most -- in ways that limit their ability to participate fully as members of society and, for that matter, to engage in interstate commerce. Frequently these people can't switch jobs or start a business. In the worst cases, they can't pay their medical bills or obtain the care they need.

By establishing the mandate, which is really just a financial incentive for people to get insurance, the Affordable Care Act will build large, stable risk pools for health insurance. It will also enable the government to set rules about standard benefits and pricing that allow people buying insurance on their own to comparison-shop. In the long run, according to the Congressional Budget Office, it will help government control the cost of medical care, which increasingly strains public and private resources alike -- and today accounts for one-sixth of the American economy.

The mandate would seem to fall well within current boundaries of the government's power to regulate interstate commerce and to do whatever is "necessary and proper" for carrying out its duties, as established by numerous precedents. that the mandate is not sufficiently universal and uniform, which is an argument in favor of HSAs from the cradle, though the funding mechanisms can be diverse.

Posted by orrinj at 9:55 AM


An infinite scream, passing through nature (Robert Fulford  May 5, 2012, Globe and Mail)
In the Norwegian National Gallery in Oslo, Edvard Munch's The Scream is the unquestioned star painting, like Leonardo's Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The other-worldly figure standing on the bridge overlooking Oslo, his mouth twisted into a vertical oval, lives in the world's visual memory. It was inspired by Munch seeing the sky suddenly turn a florid orange-red. That vision frightened him into art: "I stood there trembling with anxiety. I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature."

Ever since Munch painted it in 1893, successive generations have embraced it as a work that catches the anxious spirit of their own time. On Wednesday, the art market re-affirmed the importance of both Munch and The Scream when an anonymous buyer at Sotheby's in New York paid $119,922,500, the highest figure any painting has ever brought at auction, for one of the four copies of The Scream Munch made.

Munch said he feared madness. Yet he also knew how to use it. His great accomplishment was to turn a life of misery into powerfully symbolic art. Driven and depressed, he made himself by force of will into the embodiment of madness in art. Partly under his influence, madness became an acceptable form of expression in modern culture. I confess to not having paid it much attention, but was still surprised when the obvious point was made that the figure in the picture is receiving not emitting the titular scream.  Not sure why anyone would drop that kind of iron on a work that exists to be mocked.
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Posted by orrinj at 9:00 AM


Delta Dawn: How Sears, Roebuck & Co. midwifed the birth of the blues (Chris Kjorness, May 2012, Reason)

Delta blues is as much legend as it is music. In the popular telling, blues articulated the hopelessness and poverty of an isolated, oppressed people through music that was disconnected from popular trends and technological advances. Delta blues giants like Robert Johnson were victims, buffeted by the winds of racism, singing out mostly for personal solace. The story is undoubtedly romantic, but it just isn't true. "It angers me how scholars associate the blues strictly with tragedy," B.B. King complained in his 1999 autobiography Blues All Around Me. "As a little kid, blues meant hope, excitement, pure emotion." 

The tragic image of the blues that originated in the Mississippi Delta ignores the competitive and entrepreneurial spirit of the bluesman himself. While it is certainly true that the music was forged in part by the legacy of slavery and the insults of Jim Crow, the iconic image of the lone bluesman traveling the road with a guitar strapped to his back is also a story about innovators seizing on expanded opportunities brought about by the commercial and technological advances of the early 1900s. There was no Delta blues before there were cheap, readily available steel-string guitars. And those guitars, which transformed American culture, were brought to the boondocks by Sears, Roebuck & Co. 

Music has always been an instrument of upward mobility in the black community. 

If you read about the birth of Rhythm and Blues--and Deep Blues by Robert Palmer, Mystery Train by Greil Marcus and Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick are three of the best--it's astonishing how often a performer's first guitar was ordered from the Sears catalogue.  For B.B. it replaced plucking a wire strung on the wall of a barn.  

Posted by orrinj at 8:43 AM


Nihilism Is Dead: On this most meaningless of anniversaries, Turgenev's 'Bazarov' would not recognize the philosophy he launched. (ROBERT ZARETSKY, 5/04/12, WSJ)

Bazarov impressed Nietzsche in part because the myopic and migraine-besieged German had felt alone in a world blinded to the calamity about to befall it. "Until now I have endured a torture: all of the laws by which life unfolds appeared to me to be in opposition to the values for the sake of which we endure life," Nietsche wrote in a short fragment in 1888. "This does not appear to be a condition from which many consciously suffer." And like the madman in "Thus Spoke Zarathusta," who declares that God is dead, Nietzsche warned his contemporaries that the religious, moral and even scientific stories they lived by were a pack of lies. The acid of reason had eaten away not only at the roots of faith, but its very own foundations as well. Like viewers seeking nature on the Discovery channel, all we are left with are interpretations of the world. As Nietzsche understood, this is thin gruel for those in need of transcendental sustenance.

What, then, are we to do? Celebrate, according to Nietzsche. After Bazarov's rebellion against an oppressive and obscurantist state, Nietzsche called for a rebellion against an oppressive and obscurantist set of illusions about the world. A world emptied of lasting meaning is infinitely more terrifying than a world filled with czarist prisons. But this realization is the first step to the nihilist's cure: Once we recognize this monstrous state of meaninglessness, we are free to recreate ourselves. "The world is not worth what we believed," Nietzsche scrawled in "The Gay Science" in 1862, adding: "It could be worth much more than we believed."

And, as we now know, it could also be worth so much less. More than a century later, nihilism isn't what it used to be. Unlike with the heroic challenges issued by a Bazarov and Zarathustra, we live in an age where meaninglessness is, well, meaningless. For some, this is quite as it should be. As literary theorist Terry Eagleton observed in his 2007 book "The Meaning of Life," while all men and women ponder the meaning of life, "some, for good historical reasons, are drawn to ponder it more urgently than others." Our age, Mr. Eagleton believes, lacks the urgency for such philosophical pondering--a situation that he views with equanimity.

Even contemporary philosophers, such as Thomas Nagel, who think there is something real and uncanny to the concept of nothingness, are unperturbed by it. In his 1971 essay "The Absurd," Mr. Nagel admits that nihilism "attempts to express something that is difficult to state, but fundamentally correct." This sentiment reflects something true and enduring about our lives: the shock we feel, when stepping outside ourselves and adopting the "view from nowhere," when we suddenly confront the dissonance between the great importance we devote to our daily activities and their ultimate inconsequentiality.

Yet this state of affairs, as Mr. Nagel adds, is hardly reason for the romantic and heroic posturing of a Bazarov or Nietzsche--or, for that matter, a Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus. Instead, he says, an ironic "What? Me, worry?" is the proper response to the cosmic unimportance of our situation. My life, in short, is little more than a cosmic episode of Seinfeld: rather than watching a show about nothing, I'm a walk-on in a life about nothing. Laugh tracks are optional.

And so we groan.