Entries from December 2010

Were the Founding Fathers Libertarians?

David Frum December 31st, 2010 at 9:29 pm 25 Comments

Let me toss in my 5 cents worth on the question of whether the Founders were “libertarians.”

This seems to me a question approximately as meaningful as asking whether the Founders would have preferred Macs or PCs: it exports back into the past an entirely alien mental category.

Libertarianism fuses two ideas, one political, one psychological. The political idea is that the central state should be confined within the narrowest possible limits. The psychological idea is that each person should enjoy the widest possible scope to live as he or she thinks best.

Libertarians see these two ideas as very consistent. But that libertarian perspective only feels consistent if you can accept a previous assumption: that the central state is the most important limit on our ability to live as we think best. For most people in most advanced modern democracies, that hypothesis does not ring true. For most people, it’s the bill collector, or the ex-wife, or the boss that imposes the most onerous restraints.

If this tandem set of ideas seems remote even in our modern era, back in the 18th century, each on its own would have been inaccessible, never mind both together.

Start for example with the need to confine government. Modern libertarians draw a very clear line between “the state” and private associations. I.e.: If a town council passes an ordinance requiring all houses to be painted white, that’s an outrageous violation of personal liberty, but if a condominium association adopts such a rule, that’s a reasonable exercise of freedom of association. But suppose you lived in an 18th century New England town, and the town meeting adopted such a rule. Is the town meeting more like the modern town council? Or the condo association?

That distinction, so legible to us, was not nearly so legible in the 18th century. Were the Penn family the “government” of Pennsylvania or its owners? Even at the highest level, things were fuzzy. The king of England was yes clearly equivalent to something we’d call “the state.” But Parliament? Was that “the state” also? Or was it more like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: a permanent standing body to monitor the government and with some ability to protest and block the government’s actions?

The fact is that the concept of the “state” as presented in some modern libertarian writing owes much more to 19th century German ideas than to the 18th century Anglo-American legacy. In 18th century Britain, the question of whether ministers owed obedience to the king or to Parliament was a blurry and uncertain one. In 19th century Germany and Austro-Hungary, the question was clear: ministers obeyed the monarch. Period. “The state” as experienced by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek was something outside civil society, something that society could not reliably control, and therefore had to be contained. A John Adams might think of the king of England that way, but that’s not how he’d think of the legislature of the commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Libertarian psychology would have been even more indigestible to the 18th century mind than libertarian politics. Libertarianism argues that each individual should enjoy the widest possible scope to live as he or she thinks best. It’s an attractive ideal, one widely shared by 21st century people. Modern liberals share the libertarian commitment to “autonomy,” as this ideal is generally called – they just disagree about the institutions needed to support autonomy.

But to an American of the Founding generation, the ideal of autonomy would have contradicted four of the most fundamental physical and psychic facts of life:

  • Latinity
  • Calvinism
  • material scarcity and
  • slaveholding

Let’s take them in turn…

Elite Americans of the Founding generation were deeply shaped – not literally by Roman ideas, but by the 18th century understanding of Roman ideas. Here’s a perfect example: George Washington’s favorite play was Joseph Addison’s Cato, published in 1713. Washington adapted words from that play in his famous speech quelling the Newburgh mutiny in 1783. Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” was likewise a paraphrase of a speech from Addison’s play. Ditto Nathan Hale’s “I only regret I have but one life to give for my country.” So – influential, right?

And what was the message of that play? That the most precious thing in life is honor. And what is honor? It is the esteem of the wise and the good. Better to die in a way that earns the admiration of others than to live without that admiration. It is hard to imagine a more radical antipode to Ayn Rand’s formula, “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

Less elite Americans of the Founding generation were shaped less by Addison and the Latin classics than by religious traditions heavily tinged by Calvinism.

If ever a religious tradition emphasized the danger of giving scope to the individual will, Calvinism was that tradition:

Man, having been corrupted by his fall, sins voluntarily, not with reluctance or constraint; with the strongest propensity of disposition, not with violent coercion; with the bias of his own passions, and not with external compulsion: yet such is the depravity of his nature that he cannot be excited and biased to anything but what is evil… (From Institutes of the Christian Religion).

It would be hard to imagine a mental outlook less conducive to the libertarian celebration of individual choice than that bequeathed by Calvinism not only to New England Puritanism but also to the “hardshell Baptists” of the South – such as for example the parents of Abraham Lincoln.

Only a very few Americans of the Founding generation enjoyed anything like material security. While most white Americans enjoyed a higher standard of living than European peasants, that comparative abundance was a desperately precarious state. An American who drank too much, who had too many children, who got into a fight and suffered a wound that could be infected – in short anyone who did not tightly control his impulses – risked disaster not only for himself or herself, but also for his or her loved ones. In such a world, the psychology of modern libertarianism – the desire to live unrestrained by any force outside oneself – would be seen by most as an invitation to self-destruction.

Libertarianism is very much a movement of post-1945 affluent society America, a society that has developed birth control and drug rehab, antibiotics and antidepressants. We are a society abounding in second chances. 18th century America was a society in which a personal misstep could easily lead to premature and unpleasant death. Self-actualization through self-expression was a concept not imaginable until GDP per capita rose many, many thousands of dollars higher than the level prevailing in 1776.

Fourth and finally: the libertarian ideal was psychologically unavailable to 18th century Americans because 18th century America was a slaveholding society.

If libertarianism is one who believes, as I suggested at the outset, that each person should be free to live as he or she thinks best, then a libertarian in 1776 would have been obliged to be an abolitionist. After all, the one-fifth of Americans who were defined as property on the eve of the revolution were obviously unfree to live as they thought best.

Yet it’s a very striking fact that the language that to our ears sounds most “libertarian” in the Founding generation tended most often to issue from those most committed to slavery. By contrast, the Founding Fathers who sound most “statist” — Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams — tended also to be most hostile to slavery.

This disjunction is more than some odd little paradox of history. It is a resounding klaxon warning of the enormous gap between the 18th century mindset and our own. Samuel Johnson jeered at the American colonists: “How is that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Johnson’s accusation of hypocrisy is obviously well-founded, but there is something more going on here than hypocrisy. It was precisely the intimate awareness of the horror of unfreedom — and possibly guilt for the denial of freedom to others — that inspired the passionate concern for liberty among so many slaveholders. When Patrick Henry said that he would rather be dead than share the fate of the 75 slaves he owned, he was not engaging in metaphor. But he was also not expressing 21st century libertarianism.

One last thing needs to be said to enter into the mind of 18th century Americans.

Most 18th century Americans originated on an island that had been one of the most politically unstable kingdoms in Europe. Between 1640 and 1745, the British executed one king, and sent a second into exile. The British Isles suffered three invasions backed by foreign powers: one in 1688, another in 1715, a third in 1745. They were governed by three different foreign-origin royal families (Stuart, Orange, and Hanover), plus a native military dictatorship. They had experienced a succession of radical changes in church organization, almost equally radical changes in land owning patterns.

In the years after 1689, however, that same country steadily evolved into the most stable in Europe. The dynasty established in 1714 lasts until the present day. Britain had a population only one-third that of its great power rival, France. Yet Britain built a military-fiscal state that fought and inflicted defeat after defeat upon the French.

Yes for sure there were Americans who, following John Trenchard the author of Cato’s Letters, reviewed this history and saw the creeping menace of Big Government. Some of the Anti-Federalists of the 1780s do seem to have thought this way.

But if “Founders” refers to the people who designed the government Americans actually instituted in the 1780s, then I think it’s safe to say that most of the Founders accepted these British achievements as achievements to emulate: not only Alexander Hamilton, but also James Madison. (The Bank of the United States that was destroyed by Andrew Jackson was chartered by President Madison.)

The people of the 18th century retained intense memories of what Europe had looked like before the growth of states: not a libertarian paradise, but a marauder’s free-fire zone in which dynasts and warlords despoiled the weak and disorganized. The Founding generation had absorbed the Enlightenment ideals of John Locke. But Locke had taught that the state was the vindicator of natural rights, not the enemy of those rights.

From Locke’s Second Treatise:

If man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? Why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property

Locke did not argue against government. He argued against arbitrary government, against the divine right of kings.

Although political stability had thickened in Britain by the 1770s, the Founders had a vivid example of a stateless world before their eyes: the world of the American Frontier. That was a world of violence, not a world of freedom. They had seen in the 1780s a real possibility of the breakup of the Colonies into distinct and then warring sovereignties like those of Europe. The Constitution represented a rejection of both those futures. The Founders were state-builders, very much in the model of the British statesmen of the 18th century. And if the government they built has become too big and too expensive, if the libertarian impulse summons us to take action to contain and constrain that government, very well let us take up the task. But we can do that task without duping ourselves with a false history that denies the reality of the past and – ironically – belittles the Founders’ actual achievements by measuring them against standards they would surely have rejected, if they had ever understood them.

Taxing Our Way to a Green America

December 31st, 2010 at 9:18 pm 50 Comments

The green agenda has imposed upon us the elimination of Thomas Edison’s incandescent bulb — an invention so iconic that cartoonists use it as a symbol of a bright idea.  It will be banned and illegal to sell such a harmless item in the United States after 2012 under current law.  I weep for the cartoonists who will have to draw those mercury filled curly things (the “swirl”) we will now call “light bulbs.”

Also, Mayor Bloomberg in New York City has passed laws against transfats and many cities and states have banned smoking in bars outright. For years, the large gallon tanks on toilets have been illegal and old tanks pass illegally like samizdat across the land.

Not coincidentally, the states and jurisdictions imposing the most such regulations and bans, are also those in the most perilous financial condition.  E.g. California: the first state to ban smoking in bars and some incandescent lights.

The federal government, in accord with the proclivities of the same type of politicians who support such bans, is also in perilous financial shape.  Nonetheless, the Obama administration now states it will use regulatory powers to prohibit certain levels of carbon dioxide emissions.  The Republican Party should take a page from the marijuana liberationists and substitute, in any case where such a ban is current law, a tax instead.  In the first instance they could oppose both taxes and regulatory bans, but where bad laws and regulations have already been made, another avenue must be tried.

The Republicans only control the House.  They cannot hope to have the repeal of legislation on the light bulb, or the elimination of certain prescription drugs, or new regulations on greenhouse gasses passed on their own.  However, if they could hold out a carrot to the Democrats they might be able to change the banners’ behavior.  There is no carrot more delicious to a Democrat than a tax.

First, on emissions, a battle between the House and the EPA is gearing up.  In order to forestall this, the House should agree to tax non-Nafta, non-NATO oil imports at $20 a barrel.  A coalition could be formed between national security conservatives, anti-regulation libertarians and revenue seeking Democrats to pass such a bill.  According to this chart of oil imports (does the Virgin Islands refine petroleum?) excluding Britain, Canada and Mexico, the U.S. imported in 2010 at least 6,138,000 barrels of petroleum per day from these countries.  Not counting the downturn in imports such a tax would produce, it would generate $122,760,000 to the treasury every day or over four billion a year in revenue.  House Republicans could trade an end to domestic subsidies like ethanol and wind, and no new EPA regulations for such a tax.  Such a Pigovian proposal could thus cut spending, reduce regulation and increase revenue while disempowering bad international actors like Venezuela and Algeria.  The net gain to the treasury from subsidy elimination and tax collection would exceed 10 billion a year.  Such a tax is politically better than a gas tax because the latter does not capture 30% of the uses of petroleum and seems aimed at motorists rather than foreign oil producers.

Second, a dollar incandescent light bulb tax — rather than a ban — could raise as much as a billion a year.  (In 2005, two billion light bulbs were sold in the U.S.  I assume most were Edison’s).  The “swirl” lights are supposed to last longer but I have not found this to be the case and the costs of safe disposal are externalities regulation has not addressed.  Once again, the government would put a big, taxing thumb on the scale in favor of the greens’ favorite form of light (expensive and stupid looking), the government would benefit from revenue and Americans would not be deprived of both convenience and an icon of American ingenuity.

Third, Republicans should find other regulatory bans that they believe are both stupid and counterproductive (like the regular toilet tank ban).  They should propose to legalize the offending product and replace it with a tax designed to produce revenue.  A regulation costs the government money in enforcement and creates a black market that also requires policing.  While this is inevitable for certain purposes, for ordinary household products that have suddenly fallen into disfavor, the Republican alternative should be a tax designed to capture the externalities of the product in question but allow Americans the freedom to buy it at the higher taxed price.  Even Grover Norquist might get on board if in each case if the tax was in effect removing the 100% tax of a regulation.

Fourth, on the state level, revenue strapped Republican majority states can begin to make the arguments that have brought gambling to practically every state in the nation.  They need the revenue.  Instead of smoking bans there should be expensive licenses to allow smoking establishments.  In Gotham, a “transfat” license to help a cash-strapped New York could be suggested.

Finally, Republicans should begin to ridicule the banners of normal products in every day household use.  In California, leaf blowers and outdoor barbecue grills have been suggested for elimination.  The American people will gravitate to the party protecting their right to use American inventions considered both useful and harmless; and begin to identify the Democrats not with freedom but with its opposite.

The Prowl: When New Year’s Goes Wrong

December 31st, 2010 at 2:23 pm 6 Comments

Last year on New Year’s Day, I woke up with a profound hangover and a patchy memory of the night before.  The events of the night before were recapped for me over brunch — which my then-boyfriend very lovingly put together mostly on his own for 6 people, as I occupied our “couch of pain.”  I firmly believe that New Year’s Eve should be somewhat of a bender, but it sounded as if rather than a bender, we had more of a comedy of errors.  Also, by we, I really mean me.

It all began when I thought it would be nice if some friends and we went out to dinner.  Making this decision at 5:30PM on December 31st, however, was perhaps poor planning.  After calling around, I found a Vietnamese BYOW that could take the six of us.  In retrospect, eating a light Asian meal before drinking enough champagne to make profoundly bad decisions, was in itself, a bad decision.  This is a lesson that every college freshman learns the hard way, and yet it is one that I continue to chronically forget.

As an aside, much of the topic of conversation that evening centered around listing positive things that happened in 2009.  The best any of us could really come up with was the re-opening of CERN — and given that one friend remains convinced that this will undo the universe, our one-item long list of good things for the year seemed pretty lame.  Also, we were in the same restaurant where I’d lit my hair on fire several months previously, so there was also much discussion (including from the wait staff) about whether or not I was too close to the candles….

After dinner, we went to one of our group’s house where we prepared to host a massive party, the likes of which Capitol Hill had never seen — mostly because Capitol Hill is very dull, so it was a low bar.  We’d laid in a 3-to-1 wine to person ratio; we had snacks; we had a DJ (or rather a musician friend brought his iPod, but same thing really); we had a strict formal attire dress code because people behave better when they are dressed up; we even had party hats!  Who doesn’t like hats?  I thought the festivities also might have been improved with kazoos and tambourines, but my friends rarely take my advice in these matters and that is probably for the best.

As far as details go, this is mostly where my memory stops and collective memory begins.  As I attempted to eat an omelet at brunch and rejoin what seemed like an overly bright world in 2010, I learned the following which helped explain why my entire body hurt:

1. At some point in the evening a friend’s boyfriend spilled champagne down the front of my silk backless dress.  Given that I already had wine coming out of all of my pores, actually wearing my drink did not seem like the end of the world.  However, he was not quite as blasé about all of this as I was and proceeded to try to wring out my dress.  In the process, he exposed my boobs to much of the party, including his horrified girlfriend.  It got worse, though, when he thought that trying to motorboat me would be a solid way to smooth things over.  It was not.  His girlfriend and I really aren’t friends anymore except in a very trivial way and she broke up with him shortly after the brunch.

2. An ex-girlfriend of the boy I was at the party with also was there.  She seemed un-phased by my presence — indeed she took it as a beginning point for negotiations.  At midnight, she positioned herself next to my guy, thinking that he would forget about me and kiss her and everything would be magical.  I of course was assuming the reverse would happen.  To get out of this, he instead jumped into the air at midnight and shouted something dumb.

3. If being kissed at midnight (yes, I know this is cliché), and having half a bottle of champagne spilled on me was not enough, I also managed to break a glass on my leg.  I have no idea how.  Seriously, no idea.  My date and my friend’s clumsy boyfriend took me into the bathroom and began taking pictures of my leg to text to friends to try to determine if I needed stitches.  It occurred to neither of them to get another friend who was in med school, as both somehow felt that they were “basically doctors.”  With their advanced medical knowledge, they somehow concluded that I would be fine and the bleeding would eventually stop.  To expedite this they tied dainty toilet paper bows around my leg.

4. My night of mishap and misadventure did not end there.  I became absolutely convinced that we should walk home instead of taking a cab.  I hope that this decision was made after several failed attempts at finding a cab and ideally strenuous objection from my date, but honestly I can’t say.  We made it back to his apartment wherein we learned that he had lost his keys and I possibly had frostbite.  I don’t think Washington actually ever gets cold enough to get frostbite, but again, because my boyfriend was “basically a doctor,” he was pretty sure about this.  Instead of simply taking a cab to my apartment though, we instead interrupted the third couple we had been with earlier while they were closing a deal (they both worked in M&A and it was highly enjoyable to discuss how they closed business deals together) to retrieve a spare key.

5. I did not want to take my shoes off…

While perhaps much of the debauchery and tomfoolery of the evening is lost in retelling or without direct knowledge of those involved, I am merely hoping that at the very least, I manage to bring in 2011 without physical injury or memory lapse. Please wish me luck.

And Happy New Year!

Remembering 2010 on the Big (and Small) Screen

December 31st, 2010 at 2:14 pm 4 Comments

As I celebrate my own one-year anniversary as a member of the FrumForum masthead, here is my (not-so) reverent remembrance of the TV tangles and movie memos of the last year of the Aughts (and hopefully not the first year of the Naughts!)   While television and film can often as not be pure escapism, considering that 2010 saw more bailout battles, the healthcare heart attack, the BP blowback, and double-digit depression, perhaps as one presidential TV and movie fan once said, we needed the escape “now more than ever.”

Year-End Clearance: The dam first started to crack in 2009 when NBC’s 15-year tour of duty in the ER closed down that April.  But after USA’s lovable “defective detective” Adrian Monk solved his last case in December 2009, the levees broke for real.  Between December and August of this year, long-running reliables like Scrubs, Nip/Tuck, Ghost Whisperer, and (saddest of all to this critic) the criminally underrated Cold Case all closed for business.  And those were just the moderate hits.  On May 23 and 24 alone, Lost crashed, time was finally up for Jack Bauer on 24, and the 20-year run of Law & Order “thunk-thunked” to a close.  So great was the media meltdown that Jimmy Fallon paid “musical tribute” in a horribly hilarious “medley” of these three decade-definers’ demises.

Daytime Drama: After more than 50 years, CBS’s Guiding Light burnt out, joining last year’s no-longer-revolving As The World Turns, in favor of the far less expensive (and as it turned out, higher-rated) Julie Chen chat show The TALK.  Deal or No Deal opened its last briefcase, and Bonnie Hunt and Martha Stewart left NBC for other pastures.  And while it won’t take effect until September of 2011, the undisputed Queen of Daytime, Oprah Winfrey, announced that Year 25 of her incomparably influential syndicated talk show would be its last, as she concentrates completely on her OWN cable network — followed by Mary Hart’s announcement of her impending retirement at the end of Year 30 of Entertainment Tonight.

The War for Late Night: Even all of this was small potatoes compared to what bestselling New York Times columnist Bill Carter rightly called “The WAR for Late Night.”  After the disastrous, anemic, and embarrassing Jay Leno Show at 10:00 five nights a week demolished the ratings of NBC-affiliated stations’ late newscasts (often a local station’s biggest profit center, outside of 7:00 – 8:00pm “prime access”), NBC affiliates threatened open warfare during January’s Television Critics Association Press Tour.  For all the high-priced legal talent in Hollywood, someone apparently ”forgot” — or DID they? — to specify a rock-ribbed 11:35pm start to The Tonight Show Starring Conan O’Brien. Considering that Jay Leno’s agents and lawyers DID specify a two-year, well-into-the-EIGHT-figures payday for Leno, whether the 10:00 show worked or not, that ensured that The Tonight Show would be “starring” Jay Leno again sooner rather than later.

But instead of this rug-pulling-out betrayal being his demolition, Conan turned defeat to victory by making himself seem the sympathetic character in this narrative, going all-out with social networking and comedy-club touring and painting himself as the David against the NBC-Universal Goliath.  In November, he completed the resurrection as TBS’s cable flagship.  In light of the recent mid-terms and lame-duck session, the question is — is Conan the comedy version of Obama, or is Obama the Presidential version of Conan?

Dr. Phil Goes to the Movies: Big-screen entertainments have often gotten the rap for concentrating too much on blowups and explosions that go “boom” World Trade Center-style, instead of the blowups and explosions of complicated, literate interpersonal relationships.  But 2010 if not reversing the trend, certainly provided an interesting counter-argument.   There was the chick-lit camp of things like The Back-Up Plan, Valentine’s Day, and Eat Pray Love to the “alternative” (in EVERY sense of the word) families” of The Kids Are All Right and I Love You Philip Morris, to the lacerating, gripping existentialism of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart’s Rabbit Hole, Clint Eastwood and Matt Damon’s Hereafter, James Gandolfini’s Welcome to the Rileys and Nicole Hofcener’s excellent Please Give. Even some movies that could have been fluff, like Dear John and Love and Other Drugs, managed to incorporate a more mature and emotional approach.

Reality Shows: Several of the year’s best films were as ripped-from-the-headlines as an episode of the late Law & Order in its prime.  The Valerie Plame scandal was retold to gripping effect in Fair Game, with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn making the short-list for likely Oscar noms.  James Franco gloriously suffered once again as extreme sportsman Aron Ralston in 127 Hours, before the film was even dry on his no-holds-barred portrayal of beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl (not to mention a sexually murderous S&M artist on General Hospital.) The Wall Street meltdown of 2008 was satirized by (what else?) Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, even as an all-star HBO adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail was announced for production next year.  Al Pacino played Dr. Jack Kevorkian in HBO’s You Don’t Know Jack, and another Jack (Abramoff’s) even more sordid story was essayed by Kevin Spacey in the new big-screen Casino Jack.

Everything Old Is New Again: TV’s biggest “new” hit was a show that had its original premiere in the final months of Lyndon Johnson’s administration, and said “Aloha” in the last year of Jimmy Carter’s (though it’s been in continuous cable reruns ever since.)  Hawaii Five-0 was rebooted into a Hawaii 5.0 by CBS, as a replacement for its closed Cold Case, resurrecting the tsunami wave the same year as the 30th anniversary of the original show’s April 1980 cancellation.  (Sadly, James MacArthur of the original series died in late October, just days after the producers of the new Five-0 asked him to make a guest appearance.)

The big screen was even more focused on the rearview mirror. For the past six or seven years, virtually every drive-in slasher movie of the 1970s was given the remake treatment:  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), The Toolbox Murders (2004), Black Christmas and When a Stranger Calls (both 2006), Halloween and Halloween II (2007 and 2009), Prom Night (2008), and Friday the 13th (2009).  It is a testament to just how truly awful the remakes were that they actually made the bargain-basement originals look like quality filmmaking in comparison.  This year, the “nightmare” wasn’t over, as (the very estimably talented) Jackie Earle Haley had the audacity to step into Freddy Krueger’s pizza-face and sweater, and started slashing scantily-clad and sexually active teens in a remake of 1984′s iconic Nightmare on Elm Street. But while quintessential Freddy Robert Englund was both scary and campy, the remake, like almost all the others, was just a bad dream we’d like to forget.

Candid Candidates: This year’s campy and risible campaign ads could just as well be a VH1 clip show — “Ill-est Political Putdowns and Minority Moments.”  Where to begin?  Christine O’Donnell assuring voters that “she’s not a croo –” I mean, “I’m not a witch”?   Sharron Angle’s beyond-Willie-Horton racism that sent more infuriated Latinos to the polls than all the get-out-the-vote cards Harry Reid could ever play?  An elderly Arlen Specter admitting that the only reason he switched parties after the 2008 Obama youthquake was “so I could get re-elected again” (ensuring, of course, that he wouldn’t)?

Being a California boy, my ”vote” goes to the ironies of our state’s vicious-as-usual governor’s race.  Meg Whitman annihilated Steve Poizner in her race for the Republican nomination (the cruelest one being a series of “Why We Can’t Trust Steve Poizner” quickies), only to get a bit of her own medicine when Jerry Brown ran an ad that morphed her into the “twin” of unpopular Governor Schwarzenegger, reciting the same shopworn lines Schwarzo did seven years ago.  It was an especially bitter pill for conservatives to swallow — after 30 years of arguing that “government needs to be run more like a business,” Brown’s ads bluntly came right out and said that a “career politician” — NOT an outsider business executive — was what the doctor ordered for California’s crisis.  And a double-digit margin of voters agreed with him.

The Zuckerberg Zeitgeist: No question about it — THE front-runner in the race for Best Picture of 2010 is David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s masterful (if liberty-taking) re-imagining of the concurrent Ben Mezrich book The Accidental Billionaires, rebooted into the much more succinct moniker The Social Network. Already the film has taken top honors from the New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles Film Critics Associations (full disclosure: the head of the last association is one of my best friends, Brent Simon, who blogs at the nifty www.shareddarkness.com ).  No accident that Time magazine chose Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as its Person of The Year.  The Social Network eagerly has this critic’s vote, too.

FF Remembers: The passings of John Forsythe, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Robert Culp, and Tony Curtis just about cleared the decks of Greatest Generation leading men.  (Memo to Dick Van Dyke, Sidney Poitier, and Clint Eastwood — start checking your pulses TWO times a day!)  Patricia Neal, Jill Clayburgh, Lena Horne, and Jean Simmons defined onscreen dignity. Tom Bosley and Barbara Billingsley were the parents that everybody wished they had (or could be — and she spoke a mean case of jive talk, too!)  Rue McClanahan and Dixie Carter were Southern, sophisticated, and sexy (even after sixty!)  Dino DeLaurentiis, Irvin Kershner, Arthur Penn, Dede Allen, Sally Menke, William Fraker, Grant McCune, David Wolper, Ronnie Chasen, and Blake Edwards made the magic behind the cameras.  Charlie O’Donnell and Art Linkletter gave their last broadcasts.  Ingrid Pitt and Zelda Rubinstein battled demons, monsters, and vampires (when they weren’t playing them).  And Dennis Hopper was just one of a kind.

OK, this article’s gone on long enough, and Carson Daly is about to drop his ball(s).  So I will do what all the great performers do and exit stage left — stopping only long enough to wish all of you all of what you would wish for yourselves, and may 2011 be all that 2010 was not!  (In a good way, of course!)  See you all “next year!”

Can I Disinvite Friends from a New Year’s Bash?

December 31st, 2010 at 2:05 pm 4 Comments

Writing in the Globe and Mail, David Eddie hears from a reader wondering if they can disinvite their friends from a New Year’s Eve party.

The reader writes:

Hubby and I have become close friends with a couple, Amber and Bill. They’re hosting a small New Year’s Eve get-together and told me I could invite anyone I wanted. We recently introduced them to some other dear friends of ours, Clare and Dan. The six of us have now spent several Saturday evenings socializing. A couple of weeks ago, Clare and Dan mentioned they’d love to spend New Year’s with us, and I said, “Great, Amber and Bill are having a party. Wouldn’t that be fun if you two came?” A more socially astute person might have double-checked with the hosts, but the combination of “invite whomever you want” and “we really like your friends” made me think I was in the clear. The following day, Amber told my husband that she wouldn’t feel comfortable if Clare and Dan were at the party. I’m having trouble foreseeing a future that doesn’t involve hurt feelings and awkwardness.

Eddie responds:

Socializing in general is a never-ending festival of “hurt feelings and awkwardness.” Why should New Year’s Eve be any different?

Listen to me. What have I become?

In my twenties and thirties, I loved to mix and mingle. I turned nothing down but my collar. I’d go to the opening of a phone booth, an outhouse, an elevator. (Not hyperbole: I went to the opening of an elevator once, in an upscale shopping mall. Free wine, good snacks, lots of swish society babes – it was fun!) These days, though, in the words of Henry de Montherlant, I prefer to “retire on the shady side of 40 with a few choice friends.”

And parties sometimes seem like gratuitous, halitotic congregations of bores and stiffs, underminers and the “overrefreshed.” The other night, at a friend’s house, I thought I was having a pleasant enough conversation with a sabre-toothed divorcee (genus smilodon fatalis), until I realized her agenda was to zing and shiv me at every opportunity and pepper me with “questionsults”. “Does Pam” – my wife – “dye her hair?” “Are you feeling thin, Dave?” To Pam, re: a tiny, army-issue cross I wear around my neck, “Really? Jewellery on a man?”

On and on it went. Me wondering: “Why do I subject myself to this? I could be sitting at home, in front of the fire, with a bourbon and a good book.”

Anyway, that’s my problem. On to yours. If I were you, I would sit down and have a chat with Amber over, say, a glass of chardonnay (or two), and gently probe to see if you can find the source of her discomfort vis-à-vis your friends. Was there some intercouple friction or frisson or flirtation? Does she feel threatened or undermined?

If it’s nothing too dire, perhaps you can find a way to broker peace between the two parties. (I know there’s not a lot of time left. But it’s not too late yet, I hope. In even the most long-standing of feuds, peace is sometimes only a cup of tea, a frank discussion and a hug away.) If it’s something more serious – if, say, Clare stole a diamond necklace from Amber’s dresser, or Dan got drunk and defecated in their cat’s litter box – well, then, that’s a little more ticklish, obviously. …

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Is Cheating Just Part of the Game?

December 31st, 2010 at 1:54 pm 7 Comments

Media and fans feasted on recent news that Jets coaches and players formed a “human wall” on the sidelines to impede opponents’ specialty teams.  Most observers were outraged by the breach of sportsmanship, but some argued that the Jets were merely doing what competitors do: pushing the envelope to gain an advantage.

This debate may have given you a sense of déjà vu.  Remember when Derek Jeter faked being hit by a pitch and fooled the umpire into awarding him first base?  Or when Alex Rodriguez screamed “mine” as he rounded the bases, tricking an opposing infielder into letting a fly-ball drop?  How about when a basketball team sneaks Player X to the free throw line instead of Player Y (the one who’d been fouled), because X is the better foul shooter?

These examples, which could be multiplied, all raise the same question: is it acceptable for athletes to engage in chicanery?  Some see no problem, and a very slippery slope if we worry about these things.  If today we indict players who flop to draw fouls, tomorrow we’ll condemn the outfielder who pretends he caught a ball he trapped, and before long we’ll be demanding that players ask the officials to overcall a bad call in their favor.  Let the players play and the officials officiate.  Competitive athletes will always get away with what they can.

But the slippery slope runs in both directions.  If “anything goes,” then doctoring the baseball is fine – let the umpires catch it (or not).  Ditto corked bats.  How about slugging an opponent when the referee turns his back?  Getting away with whatever you can is not a prescription for healthy competition, but rather a form of anarchy that rewards the least scrupulous.

I’ve presented this as a debate between those who endorse bending the rules and those who advocate sportsmanship.  In the real world, it’s less black and white.  From dispute to dispute, people take different positions.  You may find it fine for a player to fake being hit but think the Jets crossed the line with the human wall.  Others may insist the reverse.  And as long as each case is approached ad hoc, we won’t get anywhere in delineating appropriate behavior.

I propose a three-part approach to provide guidance for all cases of questionable behavior.  First, rulebooks should be written with greater specificity.  When Alex Rodriguez screamed “mine,” some major leaguers claimed he violated an unwritten rule while others professed unawareness of any such taboo.  As Yogi Berra may have said, unwritten rules aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

If we don’t want football teams forming a wall out of bounds, ban it.  If we don’t want basketball players sneaking the wrong player to the line, punish the attempt.  In other words, rather than leave these decisions to players and coaches, let’s clarify the matter in advance.  Most people who were outraged by A-Rod’s “mine” are untroubled by the hidden ball trick.  Why?  Because the latter is an officially accepted ploy, with specific rules governing its use.  That’s key – a rulebook that clarifies what is and isn’t acceptable.

But the rulebook can never cover all potential behavior.  Hence my second step: recognize a spirit of the rules.  Whether or not football specifically prohibits a sideline wall, it clearly contemplates that only 11 players on each team are supposed to participate in a play.  The wall violates the spirit of that rule.  Similarly, the non-fouled player who sneaks to the free throw line is clearly trying to circumvent the rule that the player fouled is the one who shoots the free throws.

Interestingly, of the examples I’ve raised, the one that may be least objectionable is Alex Rodriguez screaming “mine.”  It’s not at all clear that A-Rod violated the spirit of any rule.

It doesn’t follow that such behavior should be accepted.  There’s something to be said for a general pro-sportsmanship understanding or default position that’s pro-sportsmanship.  Winning isn’t everything.  Who wants to win in a way that calls into question his victory or character and leaves his opponent feeling cheated?  Of course, a general pro-sportsmanship rule can offer only limited guidance.  Accordingly, here’s the practical rule: If you have to ask, don’t do it.

Assange: Arab Officials Spied for U.S.

December 31st, 2010 at 1:03 pm 1 Comment

Foreign Policy‘s WikiLeaked blog reports:

The Internets are buzzing about an interview Julian Assange gave to Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel Wednesday, in which the WikiLeaks frontman reportedly threatened to release cables showing that various Arab officials were working with the CIA.

He vowed to do so “if I am killed or detained for a long time.”

“These officials are spies for the U.S. in their countries,” Assange said, according to Qatar’s Peninsula newspaper. More:

The interviewer, Ahmed Mansour, said at the start of the interview which was a continuation of last week’s interface, that Assange had even shown him the files that contained the names of some top Arab officials with alleged links with the CIA. [...]

Some Arab countries even have torture houses where Washington regularly sends ‘suspects’ for ‘interrogation and torture’, he said.

He then complained, “Washington is also projecting me as a terrorist and wants to convince the world that I am another Osama bin Laden.”

Observers have long speculated about the massive “insurance” file that WikiLeaks posted on the Pirate Bay, which has by now been downloaded by thousand of people all over the world. Opening the file requires an encryption key that presumably would be released upon Assange’s incarceration or untimely death. I guess it’s the motherlode.

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Airports Look at Ditching TSA

December 31st, 2010 at 8:55 am 7 Comments

The Washington Post reports:

Every spring, private security officers at San Francisco International Airport compete in a workplace “March Madness”-style tournament for cash prizes, some as high as $1,500.

The games: finding illegal items and explosives in carry-on bags; successfully picking locks on difficult-to-open luggage; and spotting a would-be terrorist (in this case Covenant Aviation Security’s president, Gerald L. Berry) on security videos.

“The bonuses are pretty handsome,” Berry said. “We have to be good – equal or better than the feds. So we work at it, and we incentivize.”

Some of the nation’s biggest airports are responding to recent public outrage over security screening by weighing whether they should hire private firms such as Covenant to replace the Transportation Security Administration. Sixteen airports, including San Francisco and Kansas City International Airport, have made the switch since 2002. One Orlando airport has approved the change but needs to select a contractor, and several others are seriously considering it.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which governs Dulles International and Reagan National airports, is studying the option, spokeswoman Tara Hamilton said.

For airports, the change isn’t about money. At issue, airport managers and security experts say, is the unwieldy size and bureaucracy of the federal aviation security system. Private firms may be able to do the job more efficiently and with a personal touch, they argue.

Airports that choose private screeners must submit the request to the TSA. There are no specific criteria for approval, but federal officials can decide whether to grant the request “based on the airport’s record of compliance on security regulations and requirements.” The TSA pays for the cost of the screening and has the final say on which company gets the contract.

Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), the incoming chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has written to 200 of the nation’s largest airports, urging them to consider switching to private companies.

The TSA was “never intended to be an army of 67,000 employees,” he said.

“If you look at [the TSA's] performance, have they ever stopped a terrorist? Anyone can get through,” Mica said in an interview. “We’ve been very lucky, very fortunate. TSA should focus on its mission: setting up the protocol, adapting to the changing threats and gathering intelligence.”

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Udall Proposes Filibuster Deal

December 31st, 2010 at 8:42 am 3 Comments

TPM reports:

A handful of junior Democrats, including Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), have done an impressive job building momentum for a package of modest, but meaningful, changes to the Senate’s filibuster rules. But their plan could be completely upended and replaced by even more modest reforms, if Democratic and Republican leaders successfully negotiate a bipartisan rules reform compromise.

In a phone interview with me Wednesday, Udall described negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) as a “separate track” from his own efforts.

A Senate Democratic aide confirms that those discussions are ongoing, and haven’t yet yielded consensus. But if they do, that consensus would serve as a stand-in for Udall’s approach, not as an endorsement of it, as previous reporting has suggested.

“I’m not privy to those conversations,” Udall said.

Here’s how this dynamic evolved. Udall along with several freshman Democrats, and even some senior Dems like Tom Harkin, have been making the case — and building support — for rules reform for many months. Their efforts have been successful enough to get just about every Democrat in the caucus on board with the idea of some kind of rules reform. All but one of them — retiring Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) — signed a letter to Reid endorsing the idea, citing unprecedented GOP obstruction.

But there isn’t party-wide agreement on what should be reformed, or how extensive the changes should be.

That gave Reid the balance of power in this debate. Armed with the letter, and with the fact that the filibuster can be reformed on a majority-rules basis at the beginning of each Congress, he can get Republicans to negotiate under the credible threat that he and the Dems could go it alone, and change the rules more dramatically.

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Rattner to Pay $10M to Settle NY Case

December 31st, 2010 at 8:15 am 1 Comment

Bloomberg reports:

Steven Rattner, a co-founder of the private-equity firm Quadrangle Group LLC, will pay $10 million to settle kickback allegations involving New York’s pension fund, less than half of the $26 million state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo sought in a lawsuit.

Rattner also agreed to be banned from appearing “in any capacity” before any public pension fund in the state for five years, the attorney general’s office said yesterday in an e- mailed statement. Cuomo, New York’s governor-elect, sought a lifetime ban from the securities industry.

“I am gratified that we have been able to reach an agreement in this case, as it resolves the last major action of our multiyear investigation,” Cuomo said in the statement.

Rattner, 58, helped overhaul General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC when he headed the U.S. government’s Automotive Task Force. He said in the same statement he was “pleased to have reached a settlement.”

“I apologize if during the course of this process there is anything I did that may have made reaching this agreement more difficult,” he said. “I respect the work of the attorney general and his staff to ensure that the New York State Common Retirement Fund operates properly and in the best interests of New Yorkers.”

Davidson Goldin, a spokesman for Rattner, said the agreement with Cuomo says Rattner is settling “without any admission as to liability.” Cuomo spokesman Richard Bamberger didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking a copy of the settlement.

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