George Sarant

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Archive for January 2010

ON BOOKS

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Thomas Jefferson once said “I cannot live without books,” and so proceeded to amass a library of over 10,000 volumes. Unfortunately I decided to emulate him, and over the course of my life largely succeeded. Now I find myself trying to divest myself of some of what I accumulated. I intend to keep the ones that are rare and valuable, or that hold some value for me, but dispose of many of the rest. It is the ones that are not that give me the most grief. I find selling them tedious, but in my mind the notion is fixed that every book has some value. if not I want to dispose of it. In reality this is not the case. Some, indeed many, books are clearly worthless insofar as there is no demand for them.

You see this at book and library sales (which I no longer frequent), where on the last day, remaining books, even if they are totally free, have no takers. They probably wouldn’t even make the $1 bargain shelf at most used book stores. These, unfortunately, are declining in number. I hate big chain stores stocked mainly with best sellers and never go to them, but take pleasure in browsing the one-of-a-kind shelves of used bookstores where you never know what you’ll discover. Years back the Isaac Mendoza book store was located around the corner from my office. It was the oldest book store in New York City, and I enjoyed browsing there, but unfortunately the rent was raised and the store went out of business, as have too many others. These are irreplaceable resources simply because they contain so much that is now scarce and out of print. This is partially offset by things like BookFinder on the Internet, where the inventories of thousands of used booksellers can be checked provided you know what you’re looking for. But it still doesn’t compare to a musty old store with classical music playing in the background.

Is all of this obsolete now due to electronic readers and the new Apple IPad? To me they are useless. I can read a pdf on my laptop so what do I need a dedicated reader for? Obviously there is some market for them, but nothing compares to holding a book in you hand and turning the pages. This is especially true of a classic in a well-made edition, which is about all I read (the only new books I read are nonfiction). I think every literate person should devote time to reading the “great books;” they are “great” for a reason, even though “multiculturalism” has removed many from college curricula, that is all the more reason to compensate for the semi-literate education people receive today.

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January 31, 2010 at 10:20 PM

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THE ENDLESS CAMPAIGN

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In his State of the Union speech Barack Obama took the unprecedented step of criticizing a Supreme Court decision in front of the congress and country. That was an outrageous breach of etiquette and furthermore much of his statement was factually incorrect. The Supreme Court lifted restrictions on domestic corporate campaign contributions, not foreign contributions, which is prohibited by another law. Having once been subject to prosecutorial persecution on this issue myself, I believe we should get rid of most if not all campaign finance restrictions, provided there is full transparency on the record as to the source of all contributions. Donations to parties in particular should not be limited as they do not accrue to any single individual.

This is not because I look favorably on the vast amount of money going into political campaigns but because I think that finance reform is futile, and the wrong approach to a larger problem. What we really need is election reform. Currently we are subject to a virtually constant campaign. Elected officials spend an inordinate amount of time fundraising. John F. Kennedy did not even announce for President until January of 1960. Today the presidential campaign is ongoing, almost from the moment an election ends, even though the next election is years into the future. All other elected officials or potential candidates must be continuously preoccupied with fundraising.

So what is to be done to reform this system? I believe the answer lies in restricting the time period during which campaigning can be conducted. In Britain once elections are announced it is only a matter of several weeks before the election, not an endless number of months, as happens here. If the time frame for an election is limited, far less resources are required to seek office. With a shorter designated campaign window we would also not be subject to endless campaign solicitations and commercials. If both parties could agree on a time frame for campaigns the public interest would be far better served. An election campaign season should be measured in weeks, not months or even years. This would work for most elective offices. For the presidency the whole nominating procedure needs to be reformed, but that is a subject for another piece.

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January 29, 2010 at 11:28 PM

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A NEW WAY TO IDENTIFY TERRORISTS?

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In a prior blog I had made the case for profiling to identify terrorism. In response I heard from John D. Byrnes who runs the Center for Aggression Management. They have come up with a methodology for identifying potentially aggressive behavior that seems to fit the bill. It uses a Continuum of Aggression to measure an individual’s proclivity towards violence. This is particularly useful in the workplace where there are many incidents of employees or former employees behaving violently towards others. Mr. Byrnes feels this approach could be useful in identifying potential terrorists, and certainly would have worked in the case of Major Hassan. It is definitely worthy of investigation for use by the authorities. If such techniques can be further refined we might have an additional tool for pinpointing terrorists. For more information go here.

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January 25, 2010 at 5:49 PM

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PERNICIOUS PUBLIC EMPLOYEE UNIONS

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For the first time in history public sector union membership exceeds private sector union membership. As private sector employment continues to decline public sector employment is increasing. This is a dismal indicator of where our economy is headed. The old industrial sector unions understood that a thriving private sector was necessary for their own prosperity. Even though aligned with the Democratic party the members tended to vote independently.

Today public employee unions like SEIU, AFSCME, and teacher unions are all prospering at public expense. They all have a vested interest in public spending and taxation, and exert a controlling interest on the Democratic party. The “stimulus,” rather than going for infrastructure, roads, and bridges, which would stimulate private employment, and provide jobs for the people who are actually unemployed, largely went to states and programs favored by these groups.

They now provide the funds and shock troops for liberal Democrats in elections and bogus counter-tea party rallies and have a clear interest in expanded government. This occurs not just at the federal level but in states and localities as well. For example, in suburbs teachers unions, apart from screwing up education and resisting reform, regularly dominate school budget votes that constantly increase taxes because few others bother to vote and opponents aren’t organized. California is going broke with absurdly high pension obligations. It is possible for a prison guard to retire at 50 and receive a pension equivalent to 90% of their last salary. New York is not far behind.

These unsustainable benefits were granted in part because of influence in state legislatures, and because public employment allegedly pays less than private employment. This is no longer true so we have the preposterous situation of people making less being taxed to maintain people making more than they are. Furthermore government priorities are warped from what would otherwise be in the public interest by this insidious influence.

Unless the grip of these unions is broken the cost of government will become increasingly onerous and its expansion will be unchecked. Thus one of the first priorities of true reformers must be to break these unions, for that is where much of the pressure on government expenditures is coming from.

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January 23, 2010 at 10:52 PM

LET’S BLAME WALL STREET

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Having lost popular support for their socialist agenda watch the administration and Democratic congress try to gain traction by focusing on a new target- Wall Street. This new “populism” will be an attempt to tap into public anger about the economy and divert attention from the fact that they have done nothing to improve it. “Wall Street” is a euphemism for the bankers and financial industry.

There are a few problems with this tactic. First of all Wall Street like most big corporations has no political principles. It simply goes with the flow. If there is money to be made by dealing with the government that’s where they’ll go. Many on Wall Street were quite comfortable with Obama. In fact Wall Street gave more money to the Democrats in the last election cycle than Republicans. Are they going to bite the hands that feed them? So just how real is this populist attack on Wall Street likely to be? It will amount to little more than divisive rhetoric.

Second, any action will involve punishing the banks for doing what the government wanted them to do. It was the government that forced the banks to make loans to unqualified borrowers in order to expand home ownership through the Community Reinvestment Act and other instruments. I don’t like derivatives and other exotic financial instruments, but insofar as they deal with mortgages they are government-inspired, particularly with low interest rates maintained by the Federal Reserve. Easy money and credit forced by the government had the effect of inflating real estate prices to unsustainable levels.

Third is the myth of the bailout, which assumes that Wall Street somehow obtained billions of dollars of taxpayer funds and then walked off with them or paid themselves bonuses. The truth is that Wall Street received no grants, no gifts of taxpayer funds. They received loans to shore up the financial system, even if they didn’t want or need them in many cases. Most of these loans have been paid back with interest. The only money not coming back is what the government gave to the auto industry, which has nothing to do with Wall Street. So Wall Street has not gotten any benefit from the government, and in fact is having to eat huge losses on government-inspired loans.

What the Democrats seek to do is divert populist “tea party” away from them and the government and towards Wall Street. True enough there is some anger at Wall Street as well, but I would wager that has more to do with a drop in the value of 401(k)s than any fundamental antipathy. These accounts are on the mend and will recover in the long run and require a healthy Wall Street to prosper.

Meanwhile the government is moving forward with “reform” legislation, before the commission it appointed to investigate this matter has reported, not that this commission is objective given the grilling the left-wing Chairman Phil Angelides gave to top bankers last week. It is blaming Wall Street before the investigation has even been completed. Any objective accounting must acknowledge the seminal role of government in creating the crisis.

But government is not going to blame itself. Yet given a jobless “stimulus” waste of money, increased debt, and a 10% unemployment rate this phony “populism” not likely to gain much traction. The notion that “We screwed up so let’s blame Wall Street” is too transparent to be taken seriously. It will not create a single job, which will only happen when there is a stable system and incentive for private capital to invest in future growth.

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January 21, 2010 at 4:40 PM

THE MESSAGE FROM MASSACHUSETTS

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When the most liberal Democratic state in the union sends a Republican to the Senate, which it has not done since 1972, something clearly is up. Scott Brown’s comfortable victory sends a clear message to the most radical government in American history. The people do not want what the congress is trying to put over on them. Never in the history of the country has a radical congress tried to put across a major piece of legislation which a solid majority of people oppose. That is the case with the abominable health care overhaul, which was already bad before it descended into blatant deal-making with certain senators to provide their states with something others are not getting, and exempting the unions from a tax that will be foisted on everyone else. People have looked at this and decided that even what we have now is better than what is being proposed.

That this message resonates as far as Massachusetts indicates how strong feelings are about this congress. This election was clearly nationalized so there’s no doubting the meaning of the outcome. Democrats may find solace in the equally out-of-touch mainstream media, but the course they have chosen is clearly disastrous, no only for them but for the country. People don’t want a socialist America. They do not want a bloated government with ever increasing spending, deficits, and taxes. They do not want the government taking over health care. They do not want cap and trade legislation that will wreck the economy. In fact there is little on the agenda that they do want.

How can politicians be so tone-deaf? The answer is purely ideology. They have misread their majority as an endorsement for a radical agenda of every item on the left-wing wish list. The leadership is so dedicated to this that Pelosi and company will still try to push it forward even as party members drop away for fear of a tsunami of change that is certain to arrive this November. Hopefully the damage between now and then will be limited.

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January 21, 2010 at 12:40 AM

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THE DEMISE OF NEWSPAPERS

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When I was a kid I loved going to a newsstand in Times Square that used to carry all of the out-of-town newspapers, which I would collect with an insatiable curiosity about other places and information sources. If you named a city I could tell you the names of its newspapers. Many are sadly long gone and more are on their way out.

There has been much handwringing about the demise of newspapers, especially by liberals as most papers reflect their views, but this should be of some concern to conservatives as well. The Internet and cable news along with things like Craig’s List, which has decimated the local ad market paper depend on, have eaten away at the newspaper audience. If it weren’t for supermarkets and department stores most would be toast as circulation drops and advertisers migrate to other media. Even the Wall Street Journal, the largest and best paper in the country barely makes a profit. To these other factors I would add the decline of attention span in younger populations. Few have the patience or discipline to read a long newspaper article. I’m a fast reader, but it still takes an hour or so to read through everything in the Journal. Few people have that much time or patience. There are a couple of free newspapers doing fairly well here in NY, because they contain articles that can be easily finished in the course of subway ride. What those who are concerned about the decline of “substantive journalism” are missing is that there isn’t that much of an audience for it.

On the other hand something like the New York Times regularly serves as the new source for much of the other media, which is one of the reasons much of the “mainstream” tends to have a liberal bias. That is why there is so much concern about the possible demise of the Times- it would be the loss of a primary source of news. Having been in their crosshairs at one time I can attest to how the rest of the pack slavishly follows the Times, which definitely has an ideological liberal agenda. Many of us won’t miss the Times for that reason, as much as elites may moan.

The conventional thinking is that failing papers may eventually wind up on the Internet. The problem with that is that thus far the web can only support a skeleton staff, not the cadres of reporters papers currently employ, albeit in decreasing numbers. Some regret the demise of “investigative” journalism and substantive articles, as well as field reporting. Yet there is plenty of that on the Internet, it is just that the power there shifts from single-source newspapers to news aggregators. This at best results in a kind of Wikipedia level of accuracy.

The notion of professional journalism and objective hard news is a relatively recent phenomenon, mostly of the twentieth century. This ideal has hardly been maintained by many of those in the field, but it was at least a theoretical standard. Prior to the last century most newspapers did not even bother claiming objectivity. In fact newspapers actually began as partisan political propaganda organs.. You only have to go back and read some of the scurrilous attacks on the Founding Fathers in the press to realize this. Newspapers were printed with a political objective and from the beginning have had an agenda. That is why even today some papers have the name of a political party on their masthead even if the connection is long gone. So this tells us much about the true origins of newspapers.

So perhaps this is how newspapers can survive- as organs or advocates of political organizations. There is certainly massive amounts of money being donated to political parties so there is no reason why some of it cannot find its way here. That along with wealthy people who can afford to take the loss may be the way out. It may be less than ideal, but its also nothing new.

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January 17, 2010 at 10:01 PM

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