Saturday, August 16, 2014

Well, I haven't been here for a long time. Do I still know how to do this?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Monday, October 29, 2007

Dylan Does LBJ

It's been a wild week, what with paperwork and Halloween and all. I got up to Taipei Saturday and went to 101 to buy shirts (I threw out several almost new Brooks Brothers shirts last week, when I placed the laundry bag in the garbage bag spot. Yes.) But we didn't go up to the top this time, so no photos. I did get a couple of hours in reading the third volume of Caro's LBJ bio. I am now on page 387 of a 1,000 page volume. Amazing stuff, but still... And I got word that Caro's bio of Robert Moses just arrived in the mail. Yahoo! There will be more LBJ blogging, but for the moment, this picture of somebody doing Dylan doing LBJ will have to do. Hat Tip: Getty Images.

Cloud FormationOn Mountain

Imagine being there to see a sight like this. Imagine having a camera, and the skill to take this photo.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Levitt To Fail?

Stunning news today from the housing industry. (Yes, we are eclectic – we know very little about very many things). Levitt and Sons has ceased all construction and is on the verge of bankruptcy. From the South Florida Sun-Sentinal:

Levitt and Sons, the cash-strapped Fort Lauderdale company trying to survive the housing slump, said Thursday it has temporarily stopped building houses as it tries to restructure its debt.
 The builder's parent, Levitt Corp., said last Friday the subsidiary faces an uncertain future if it can't work out a deal with lenders. Builders in Florida and across the nation are struggling as the once-vibrant housing market keeps deteriorating. Last month, Levitt Corp. said it was laying off as many as 200 of its 573 employees because of the housing downturn. Most of the cuts were planned at Levitt and Sons.

 The builder did not pay $2.6 million of interest payments due last week to its five primary lenders. Levitt Corp. said it has loaned $84 million to Levitt and Sons through Sept. 30 but is unwilling to loan more money unless the builder can negotiate better financial terms with the lenders. 

Levitt Corp. said it doesn't expect to recover the money it loaned to the builder. The builder began to lose momentum starting in the 1970s, said Wayne Archer, director of the Bergstrom Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Florida.

" In the last two or three years, they've been trying to come back to being one of the major players [in the industry]," Archer said. "But it's not a good time to be a big builder."

I grew up in a Levitt development, in Bowie, MD, and spent much of my youth lamenting it. As I wrote in the late Washington Star in 1978 (whoah – another story there):

“These houses were not built by house builders any more than the assembly-line worker who puts on hubcaps is a car builder. The danger is apparent. As John Steinbeck said, “When our food and housing and clothing are all born in a complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking.”

Very prescient, John. The danger was, indeed, apparent, but they didn’t listen. Now Levitt is gasping on the tarmac. But the late David Halberstam had a more sympathetic take on the company in his book “The Fifties”:

William Levitt was indeed applying the principles of mass production that had worked so well in the auto industry to housing. There was a desperate pent-up demand for housing in the wake of the war: “In 1944 there had been only 114,000 new single houses started; by 1946 that figure had jumped to 937,000: to 1,118,000 in 1948; and 1.7 million in 1950.” Levitt, virulently anti-union, got rid of skilled craftsmen, replacing them with relatively well-paid workers responsible for doing one very limited job again and again. The most complex part of building a house was putting in the basement, so he dispensed with basements, replacing them with concrete slabs. The slabs required a flat surface, so the terrain was flattened first by bulldozers. Union carpenters carrying their lunches in bulky lunch boxes was deemed an inefficiency, so workers were fed a pre-prepared “Levittmash”© from long troughs. The construction trucks would come in and drop off the building materials at intervals of exactly 60 feet. Twenty-eight separate teams of perfectly choreographed workers would then assemble the house, on an assembly line in which the workers, not the product, moved.

“There were floor men and side men and tile men and men who did the white painting and men who did the red painting. By July 1948 they were building 180 houses a week or, in effect, thirty-six houses a day.” This in an industry in which, prior to the war, companies who built five a year were considered quite productive. To ensure there would be no disruption, Levitt made their own nails, cement and lumber. One pool was built for every 1,000 houses. Schools and churches were inserted at similarly regular intervals. And Levitt workers, non-union status notwithstanding, were well-paid. As Alfred Levitt said: “The same man does the same thing every day. It is boring; it is bad; but the reward of the green stuff seems to alleviate the boredom of the work.”

(By the way, there is one teenie-bitsy fabrication in the above. Just checking to see if you were paying attention. The rest is all accurate paraphrasing and quotation. – ed.)

I have an early memory of watching out my window as a huge, tractor-like device thundered through the fenceless back yards. The lawns had no grass, but had been seeded, and this monster was shooting hay out of a funnel onto the lawns, presumably to keep the seed from blowing away. Apparently, in the original Levittown, if people didn’t mow their lawn, the company would come and mow it for them, then send them the bill. One of the paradoxes in reading about this quintessentially capitalist enterprise is how often you encounter these quasi-socialistic, nanny-state characteristics. This firm but fair paternalism defined the company’s way of relating to its customers. (But not always fair. The company had an abysmal record on discrimination against blacks. My hometown was the site of rather prominent civil rights protests in 1963, which would have been just before we arrived. Levitt was defying the Kennedy administration’s new civil rights housing law).

I hadn’t known they were still around. I’d just read an article in the Times about the sixtieth anniversary of the first Levitt development. The company, and its development, personified a callow anti-historical kind of contemporariness that I just loathed. Nothing about the place grew or evolved organically from its surroundings. It was a place without plangency. The bones of nobody’s ancestors were buried there. But their passing, after sixty years, would be sad; would be an important bit of meaning and post-war history lost to the wind.

Hat Tip: Peter Bacon Hales; University of Illinois at Chicago.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Edge of Hurricane

I had a high school buddy who ended up going to the Merchant Marine Academy. Led his class freshman year in demerits. Last I heard, he was captain of the football team. I think of him when I see a picture like this - to be out there with a very small crew on a very big ocean, in charge of this enormous, but dwarfed vessel. To see something like this coming, and to feel you'd been properly trained to handle it and your boat was up to it - that would be pretty cool.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


This has absolutely nothing to do with my inability to post three incredibly concise and insightful posts in consecutive order, but I was recently looking for one of those cartoon curse strings, and I decided to google it, naturally. And that's when I realized - what are these things called, anyway? Now, I know there are clever columns dedicated to arcane questions like this in highbrow magazines, but that's just not me.

I've decided to name these things plotives. No, the name is not already taken. The plotive that denotes a sound like "p" or "t" with a brief, violent blast of air escaping through the lips is long vowel plotive, and you can tell everybody that John's neologism has a short o. Plot. ive. The plotive above, by the way, is from Beetle Bailey, which I'm quite sure is the New Times Roman of plotives.

Brazilian Robert Johnson

I think I just came upon this while following links at Utube. A Brazilian tribute to Robert Johnson. Great Johnsonesque guitar backing, and I presume the Portuguese is a narration of the crossroads myth, though I'd love to know what he's saying. And the footage? Who knows? An intriguing melange, though. I take this out every couple of weeks or so, and it's always compelling.

Al Gore Wins the Nobel!

I've always been sceptical of the idea that Scandinavian intellectuals have some kind of morally centered vision that the rest of us lack. (Jimmy Carter? Ack!) But, then, the rest of the world has no input into the election of American leaders who arguably shape their world more than their own leaders, so I guess they're entitled to their two cents.

What makes Gore such a powerful force in Democratic politics is that he is also emblematic of an entire set of arguments. For many, his rise is a natural rebuke of the current president, but it's also become a rebuke of the perverted political process in which style is rewarded over substance. This is an argument that Gore expands on and applies to policy in his recent book The Assault on Reason.
- John Dickerson in Slate

I choked up during An Inconvenient Truth. Not at the part where Greenland melts - oy!, I don't know anyone who lives in Greenland! - but during the recounting (indeed!) of the denouement of the 2000 election. It snuck up on me, it did, but before I knew it, there I was with a big bathos thermal wafting up into my head.

Normally, I'm pretty impatient with the old "I'm a bad campaigner, but I'd make a great president" line. Yeah, me too. And my friend Dexter here, he has the same problem. But Al Gore would make a great president. It's only to his credit that he loathes the idea of getting back into phony campaign world. I forget who it was, but some old Washington Lion was being interviewed recently and he was talking about how twisted virtually all of the presidents he'd known were. He cited Gerald Ford, the only one not elected, as the one truly normal, decent human being among the bunch.

I admire Hillary, but the dynastic issue is real, and troubling. I'm an Obama supporter, but, honestly, I think only a Gore inauguration would make me feel we were really getting a fresh start with someone experienced at the helm.

Monday, October 08, 2007


Well, that didn't come out the way I'd elaborately planned it. Please read the following in I, II, III order while I go kill myself.

Bush and Realignment III

Over the past six years, the Bush administration has operated on the assumption that if you change the political institutions in Iraq, the society will follow. But the Burkean conservative believes that society is an organism; that custom, tradition and habit are the prime movers of that organism; and that successful government institutions grow gradually from each nation’s unique network of moral and social restraints.” - David Brooks

Green, in The Atlantic, again capturing the essence of the Bush/ Cheney/ Rove project:

“The Middle East failure is all too well known - the vaulting ambition coupled with the utter inability of top administration figures to bring about their grand idea. What is less appreciated is how Rove set out to do something every bit as audacious with domestic policy. Earlier political alignments resulted from historical accidents or anomalies, conditions that were recognized and exploited after the fact by talented politicians . Nobody ever planned one. Rove didn’t wait for history to happen to him – he tried to create it on his own. ‘It’s hard to think of any analogue in American history’, says David Mayhew, a Yale political scientist who has written a book on historical alignments, ‘to what Karl Rove was trying to do.’”

I think it’s important not to fall into the trap of historical anthropomorphism – that is, trying to make moralizing generalizations about the agents of historical epochal changes (hence, the perennial kindergarten question at movie time –“Is he good or bad?”). We (most of us) stand in awe of, and admire, a Lincoln or a Roosevelt. And we never tire of hearing their stories retold, because they’re edifying – the good guys are on the side of historical change. The modern world was forged in the confrontation between the puritans and the older, Saxon communities of the marches. Okay: Cromwell - good or bad? What about when the agents of change are out and out sons of bitches?: Mark Hanna, or the extinguishers of the North American Indians? We avoid these stories as instinctively as we avoid atonal music. But, still, I’m determinist enough to concede that, yes, resistance to these was, indeed, futile.

These changes were driven by technological changes and the tectonic shifts that attend them. The story of the crushing of the Progressives is poignant and disheartening, but I laugh along with everyone else when a Jacques Chirac says that the future of Europe lies in agriculture. Fact is, historical change is values neutral, and the agents of change don’t fit into any neat moral boxes. Karl Rove set out to be one of the bastards who allow themselves to operate outside conventional moral rules, but whose crimes are mitigated by the zeitgeist exemption – "The Spirit Was With Them". Most people don’t make that decision, because they have a sober realization of the limits of their own vision. Bush has made much of his Christianity, and the Manichean rhetoric of good and evil; but the policy choices, as well as the biographies of Bush/Cheney/Rove identify them as Machiavellians rather than Christian moralists. We’re not talking Woodrow Wilson or Jimmy Carter here. Bush and Rove made a Machiavellian gamble, and the only way to redeem oneself in such a context is to be right; to be effective; to succeed. These guys didn’t even come close.

This from Robert Kaplan’s essay on Machiavelli:

Machiavelli believed that because Christianity glorified the meek, it allowed the world to be dominated by the wicked: he preferred a pagan ethic that elevated self-preservation over the Christian ethic of sacrifice, which he considered to be hypocritical… In an imperfect world, Machiavelli says, good men bent on doing good must know how to be bad. And because we all share the social world, he adds, virtue has little to do with individual perfection and everything to do with political result. Thus, for Machiavelli, a policy is defined not by its excellence but by its outcome: if it isn’t effective it can’t be virtuous… Like Machiavelli, Churchill, Sun-Tzu and Thucydidies all believed in a morality of results rather than of good intentions. So did Raymond Aron…. Aron wrote, “A good policy is measured by its effectiveness,” – not its purity.

Bush and Relignment II

“Before he ever came to the White House, Rove fervently believed that the country was on the verge of another great shift. His faith derived from his reading of the presidency of a man most historians regard as a mediocrity, Anyone on the campaign trail in 2000 probably heard him cite the pivotal importance of McKinley’s election in 1896. Rove thought there were important similarities.
‘Everything you know about William McKinley and Mark Hanna’ – McKinley’s Rove – “is wrong, he told Nicholas Lehmann of the New York Times in early 2000. “The country was in a period of change. McKinley’s the guy who figured it out. Politics were changing. The economy was changing. We’re at the same point now: weak allegiances to parties, a rising new economy.’” – Green, The Atlantic.

Caro writes eloquently about the wave of Populism that briefly broke in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, and the hope it elicited:

“But the hope was vain; the cause was as lost as the one for which many of the Populists had fought thirty years before – Bryan’s campaign was gallant but underfinanced, and the Republican Party, run by Mark Hanna, who shook down railroad corporations, insurance companies and big-city banks for campaign contributions on a scale never before seen, won what one historian calls ‘a triumph for big business, for a manufacturing and industrial rather than an agrarian order, for the Hamiltonian rather than the Jeffersonian state.’… perceptive historians find great significance in the campaign of 1896 –‘the last protest of the old agrarian order against industrialism.’”

This from a July 1999 Washington Post story by David Von Drehle:

"The swami of McKinley Mania is Bush strategist Karl Rove, who got hooked two years ago during a class at the University of Texas. A tenacious student of political history, Rove dug deeply into the story of a canny, soothing heartland governor whose party was riven by tactical and religious squabbles. Raising money on a scale previously unimagined, while scarcely leaving his front porch, McKinley remade the party in his own charming image -- inclusive, pragmatic, noncontroversial. Republiicans dominated Washington for the next thirty five years."

David Brooks expounds on how profoundly unconservative a vision this was:

“Over the past six years, the Republican Party has championed the spread of democracy in the Middle East. But the temperamental conservative is suspicious of rapid reform, believing that efforts to quickly transform anything will have, as Burke wrote “pleasing commencements” but “lamentable conclusions.”

Hang in there with me. this is all coming together.

Realignment and Bush I

There are lots of smart people out there, with lots to say, and sometimes it’s just useful to link together quotes of various things I’ve been reading to limn a train of thoughts. So, I’ll just sit back on this one and let the pros talk, and maybe add a few thoughts at the end (of course):
“Mark Crispin Miller, the author of “The Bush Dyslexicon,” once made a striking observation: all of the famous Bush malapropisms — “I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family,” and so on — have involved occasions when Mr. Bush was trying to sound caring and compassionate.
By contrast, Mr. Bush is articulate and even grammatical when he talks about punishing people; that’s when he’s speaking from the heart. The only animation Mr. Bush showed during the flooding of New Orleans was when he declared “zero tolerance of people breaking the law,” even those breaking into abandoned stores in search of the food and water they weren’t getting from his administration.” Krugman’s most recent.

From Wikipedia:

"A wealthy industrialist, Hanna [...] believed that government existed primarily to help business. He once told the Ohio attorney general, who sued to dissolve Standard Oil, to drop the suit. 'Come on,' Hanna pronounced, 'you've been in politics long enough to know that no man in public life owes the public anything." Linking Rings: William W. Durbin and the Magic and Mystery of America, James D. Robenalt, Kent State University Press, Ohio, pp. 11-12

Fifty years ago, political scientists developed what is known as realignment theory – the idea that a handful of elections in the nation’s history mattered more than the others because they created “sharp and durable changes in the polity that lasted for decades….” – Joshua Green, The Atlantic, September 2007

Green goes on to sight the elections in: 1800 (Jefferson); 1828 (Jackson); 1860 (Lincoln); 1896 (McKinley); and 1932 (Roosevelt) as consensus choices by historians.